Book Club: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and The White Book

Living in translation: from South Korea to the rest of the world
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY
IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: mentions of domestic abuse.

Sometimes, at the most random of times, when I am doing something of no importance, I am reminded of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and suddenly it’s all I can think about: the memory of Kang’s haunting prose paralyzes me. 

But, at the same time, when I am stuck in a creative rut, or need a moment of reflection in my busy, lecture-laden days, I turn to Kang’s The White Book, and let her peaceful, lilting poetry take me to a place of stillness. 

Kang’s work contains multitudes, so much so that The White Book and The Vegetarian may not seem to belong to the same writer, as she succeeds in surprising readers with each new book that is published. 

While there has been discussion as to whether Deborah Smith took some liberties in her translation from the original Korean to English, what remains at the end of the day is the beauty and simplicity of Kang’s words, and their provocative and unembellished nature. 

The Vegetarian was first published in Korea in 2007, and the English translation was published in 2016, which went on to win the Man Booker International Book Prize. The novel centres around Yeong-hye, a housewife who decides to become a vegetarian after a series of violent dreams. 

The rest of the plot follows the reactions of her family, who are unaccepting and extreme. Although the novel is essentially about the titular character Yeong-hye, readers are only able to perceive her through the perspectives of those around her — namely her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. 

We are only able to observe Yeong-hye and her erratic actions through the eyes of others, never finding out her own reasons for her decision. 

Ultimately, The Vegetarian is about autonomy and more specifically, how much control a woman really possesses over her own body in a patriarchal society. The decision to give up meat is Yeong-hye’s alone, but the actions of her husband, her father, and even her brother-in-law to some extent, do not allow her to stick to this decision. 

One chilling scene involves Yeong-hye’s brother holding Yeong-hye down at the dinner table while her father tries to force-feed her a piece of pork. The men around her cannot handle the fact that she can take such an action — a small one, as she’s only giving up meat — by herself, and that she is standing by it so strongly. 

Further, by using Yeong-hye as a proxy of sorts, her husband, brother-in-law, and sister are forced to acknowledge their own mental instability and their own feelings that are brought out due to Yeong-hye’s worsening physical and mental health. By the end, the only one who stands by Yeong-hye is her sister In-hye, as she navigates Yeong-hye’s stay at a mental institution.

Contrasting the shocking subject matter of The Vegetarian, The White Book allows for a moment of calm and slowness. The book is a meditation on the colour white, as well as the different objects and concepts that the colour encompasses. There are chapters on salt, snow, the moon, and white birds, all of which convey Kang’s reflections on the different topics in fragments.

The author wrote this book while on residency in Warsaw, Poland, and while the city is unnamed in the book, we get to see Kang’s musings on the history of the place — one that still bears the tragedy of war. But perhaps most of all, this book is a meditation on Kang’s older sister, who died in her mother’s arms when she was barely two hours old. 

Like a ghost, this older sister has haunted Kang throughout her life, leading her to think of what life would’ve been like if instead of Kang, it had been her older sister doing all that she does. All in all, The White Book is a powerful statement of less being more, and of simplicity conveying some of the biggest realities of our world.

I would recommend Kang’s work to everyone, and then some. There are very few authors who capture human nature like her — skirting between realism and surrealism — unafraid to express the raw truth through words on a page.

Not only that, but it’s so important to move past the Western perspectives that have been given a higher credibility than other literatures for centuries. Through translation, a worldwide view is quite literally offered to us, and we should seize that opportunity.

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