The Vegetarian

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byHan Kang
The Vegetarian
Tr. Deborah Smith

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 bodies—he hadn’t drawn in faces—had 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 in the middle of her buttocks, and he’d got an erection. It was almost the first time since his marriage, and definitely the first time since he’d said goodbye to his mid-thirties, that he’d felt such intense sexual desire, a desire which, moreover, was focused on a clear object. And so who was the faceless man with his arms around her neck, looking as if he was attempting to throttle her, who was thrusting himself into her? He knew that it was himself; that, in fact, it could be none other. Arriving at this conclusion, he grimaced. He spent a long time searching for a solution, for a way to free himself from the hold this image had on him, but nothing else would do as a substitute. Another image as intense and enticing as this one simply didn’t exist. There was no other work he wanted to do. Every exhibition, film, performance, came to feel dull and flat, for no other reason than that it wasn’t this.

He spent hours seemingly lost in a daydream, mulling over how to make the image become a reality. He would rent a studio from his painter friend and install lighting, get some body paints and a white sheet to cover the floor . . . he let his thoughts run on like this even though the most important thing, persuading his sister-in-law, still remained to be done. He agonized for a long time over whether he might be able to replace her with another woman, when the suspicion occurred to him, somewhat belatedly, that the film he was planning could all too easily be categorized as pornography. Never mind his sister-in-law, no woman would agree to such a thing. In that case, should he shell out a large sum of money to hire a professional actress? Even if, after making a hundred concessions, he eventually managed to get the thing filmed, would he really be able to exhibit it? He’d often anticipated that his work, which dealt with social issues, might put him in the firing line with some people, but never before had he imagined himself being branded as some peddler of cheap titillation. He’d always been completely unrestricted when it came to making his art, and so it hadn’t ever really occurred to him that this freedom might become a luxury.

If it hadn’t been for the image he would never have had to go through all this anxiety, this discomfort and unease, this agonizing doubt and self-examination. He wouldn’t have had to suffer the fear of losing everything he’d achieved—not that that really amounted to all that much—even his family, in one fell swoop, and due to a choice that he himself had made. He was becoming divided against himself. Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his own impulses? In the end, he found himself unable to claim with any certainty that he knew the answers to these questions, though he’d been so sure before. 


pp. 58 - 61

Author's Profile

Han Kang has received the Man Booker International Prize 2016, the Yi Sang Literary Award, Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literature Prize. English translations of her books include The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015), Human Acts (Portobello, 2016), and The White Book (Portobello, 2018).