"The Vegetarian" by Han Kang

He opened the sketchbook. The drawings filled scores of pages and, despite being based on fundamentally the same idea, were completely different from the performance poster in terms of atmosphere and artistic feel. The naked bodies of the men and women were brilliantly decorated, covered all over in painted flowers, and there was something simple and straightforward about the ways in which they were having sex. Without the taut buttocks, tensed inner thighs, and the skinny upper bodies that gave them a dancer’s physique, there would have been no more suggestiveness about them than there was with spring flowers. Their bodieshe hadn’t drawn in faceshad a stillness and solidity which counterbalanced the arousing nature of the situation.

     The image had come to him in a flash of inspiration. It had happened last winter, when he’d started to believe that he might somehow be able to bring his year-long fallow period to an end, when he’d felt energy start to wriggle up from the pit of his stomach, bit by bit. But how could he have known this energy would coalesce into such a preposterous image? For one thing, up until then his work had always tended towards realism. And so, for someone who had previously worked on 3D graphics of people worn down by the vicissitudes of late capitalist society, to be screened as factual documentaries, the carnality, the pure sensuality of this image, was nothing short of monstrous.

     And the image might never have come to him, if it hadn’t been for a chance conversation. Had his wife not asked him to give their son a bath that Sunday afternoon. Had he not watched her helping their son to pull on his underpants after towelling him dry and been moved to exclaim, ‘That Mongolian mark is still so big! When on earth do they fade away?’ Had she not replied thoughtlessly, ‘Well... I can’t remember exactly when mine went. And Yeong-hye still had hers when she was twenty.’ If she hadn’t then followed up his astonished ‘Twenty?’ with ‘Mmm... just a thumb-sized thing, blue. And if she had it that long, who knows, maybe she’s still got it now.’ In precisely that moment he was struck by the image of a blue flower on a woman’s buttocks, its petals opening outwards.

     In his mind, the fact that his sister-in-law still had a Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers. The causality linking these two things was so clear, so obvious, as to be somehow beyond comprehension, and thus it became etched into his mind.

     Though her face was missing, the woman in his sketch was undoubtedly his sister-in-law. No, it had to be her. He’d imagined what her naked body must look like and began to draw, finishing it off with a dot like a small blue petal i...

Han Kang is a poet, novelist, and professor of creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. She has won the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Today’s Young Artist Award, the Manhae Literature Prize, and the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Following The Vegetarian and Human Acts, The White Book will be her third book to appear in English.