The Vegetarian (Han Kang)

Saturday, March 25, 3-something in the afternoon.  I don’t know what’s gone into him.  (I’m lying now.  I do.  Peace.)

Boy Scout: Let’s watch “Beauty and the Beast” tomorrow.  If we wait until next weekend (as originally planned), it mightn’t be showing anymore.

Girl Scout: Okay.

But this isn’t about Beauty and the Beast and our mutual admiration of Emma Watson’s breasts.  This is about The Vegetarian – the book, not the librarian who happens to be a vegetarian, not the librarian’s man who happens to be one as well.  This is about the three-part novella that tackles the subjugation of women and the power of a single act of rebellion to disturb the status quo.  (Or at least that’s how I found it.)

I had been longing to read The Vegetarian since I first saw it on the shelves of National Book Store in SM Cabanatuan last year – mainly because of the title and a bit because it posed itself as a horror story – but somehow I was always hesitant to buy it.  (Always didn’t have enough money.  There’s another book in my priority list.  And I haven’t heard of Han Kang before so I’m not sure about her style.)  I’ve been into Paulo Coelho lately, if you haven’t noticed, and to read another author might disturb the smooth flow.  But I don’t know.  With Boy Scout beside me after our first movie date I pushed all hesitations aside and decided if I didn’t get this one last copy I will regret it for the rest of my life.  (Note to Boy Scout: pretend you did not read this.)

And regret it I would have because The Vegetarian hit me on multiple levels.

(Spoiler alert!)

First, of course, the obvious: the protagonist is a vegetarian.

Told through the third person omniscient eyes of her husband Mr. Cheong (“The Vegetarian”), her brother-in-law (“Mongolian Mark”), and her sister In-hye (“Flaming Trees”), The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye, a housewife in Seoul, who, because of her series of bloody nightmares involving cruelty, made the decision to stop eating animals and animal byproducts.

Second, the violent reactions over the decision.

Having been a vegetarian for five years – and the only one in my family at that – I relate to the violent reactions of the people around Yeong-hye on her conscious decision to renounce meat.  Unlike her, I didn’t get force fed by parents, but I remember them trying to taunt me with my former favorites: siningang na pata ng baboy (soured pork leg stew), relyenong bangus (flaked and stuffed milkfish), pancit, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, double dutch ice cream.  I remember talks about nutrition and the insults hurled at me for being ugly.  I remember reciting this to their faces as my mantra: “I would rather die than not be vegetarian.”

Third, Yeong-hye’s suicide.

Yeong-hye’s attempt to kill herself reminded me of how I chose to cut myself from people who force me out of my principles.  Amidst years of frustration over their trying to push their eating choices on me, I have decided that one day I will move out and there will be no corpse in my kitchen.  (The sad reason I don’t call myself vegan.)  This could well be my act of rebellion.  And I realized that an act of rebellion, no matter how small, is liberating to the spirit.

Fourth, how Yeong-hye realized it isn’t the food.

I loved the novella’s second part “Mongolian Mark” primarily because this ended Yeong-hye’s sufferings.  Here, she discovers something inside her that stopped the nightmares and she became truly happy and truly free.

And fifth, Yeong-hye’s words, “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

I remember on our first date, on the way home, on his motorcycle, in between huge trucks and through a dangerous winding road, I said something to that sort to Boy Scout and he stopped me.  I understood.  Death is a repulsive topic for many people.  But truth is, I’m not afraid of death.  You see, I could be with Jesus.  And when I decay, I will become one with the earth.  Then, I will have a more meaningful role: being part of the continuation of life.  Isn’t that beautiful?

In the end, I realized that The Vegetarian is not the horror gore story I first thought it was.  It isn’t even about vegetarianism.  Instead, it is liberation.

Probably it is because I consider myself a feminist (a girly feminist at that), I saw The Vegetarian as a social protest.  In the beginning of this piece I said this is a novella of subjugation of women and the power of an act of rebellion to disturb the status quo.

It is.  And it is empowering.

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