Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian'
This spare, strong and affecting novel transporting the reader to South Korea won the Man Booker International Prize this year. A small story with huge reach and impact, it tells the story of a married woman (‘the most ordinary woman in the world’) who rejects her body because of the violence done to it by the world – by her angry father, her blockhead of a husband, the ordered society in which she is an unappreciated, meaningless cog.
Yeong-hye lives a loveless life, reading and dreaming and tending to her drunken husband, an ugly specimen of callous mediocrity. She is shaken from this numbed existence by a shocking blood-filled dream full of terrifying faces, which recurs to torment her. Her abrupt decision to reject meat is also a rejection of the brutality of humankind; this simple decision spirals into a dramatic and brutal denouement.
Yeong-hye’s urgent need to return to a kind of primal innocence eventually destroys both her and her family: when her father tries to force her to eat meat, she self harms. Her brother-in-law’s erotic fascination with her ruins his life and marriage. Her sister’s orderly and luxurious life falls apart. In the psychiatric hospital where the emaciated woman refuses to eat - doctors force feed her in painful scenes – she attempts literally to be uprooted from humankind and become a plant or tree. Her death – intuited but not seen - is foretold from the very beginning of the novel.
Told in three voices, the book started life as a short novella about a woman becoming a plant. In 2007 Han Kang published it in the form of three linked novellas (a common form in Korean literature). The narrative voice shifts from the repulsive blockhead to the artist brother-in-law who is driven to paint her emaciated body (and his own) with flowers and plants to achieve the sexual catharsis he then films. Yeong-hye’s suppressed eroticism surfaces in this surreal and troubling section. The final third, in which Yeong-hye descends into silence and an unwavering death wish, is narrated by her sister, Kim In-hye. In-hye is profoundly affected by the pain she witnesses and brought to question the point of her own life.
This sounds harrowing but is not: the tone remains extremely calm. The three narrators' accounts mesh beautifully. Driven by their own needs, they illustrate both the innate violence of human beings and Yeong-hye’s desperate need to preserve dignity. The result is compulsive reading, an important novel suffused with dread, pain, eroticism and self-harm.
A further remarkable aspect of this painful but rewarding book is the story of its translator, Deborah Smith. A monolingual (her description) Yorkshire girl fascinated with reading, she taught herself Korean (as one does) in order to become a literary translator. She explained this to The Guardian:
“As The Vegetarian was my first translation I had no idea how any aspect of the process worked, let alone what I would do day by day. Having spent most of my life reading, and making no distinction between work in translation and in English, I decided after graduating that I would learn a language and become a literary translator. I chose Korean partly for pragmatic reasons, because I knew the country had a lively literary scene, but in fact I had read nothing from there before, because there were no translations. Rather optimistically, I put on my Twitter bio that I was a translator, and eventually I suggested The Vegetarian to a publisher, who asked me to translate it.”
She is clearly both a remarkable translator and a woman of tremendous resolve and application. In a 2015 interview Smith told The Quietus that “I taught myself the first year course while I was on the dole, then moved to London to do an MA at SOAS, which led straight into a PhD. Finally submitted last September!” Last year, with a start up grant from Arts Council England (“God bless them”) Deborah Smith founded publishing house, Tilted Axis Press, dedicated to authors from Asia with a feminist standpoint. Deborah Smith has also translated Han Kang’s Human Acts, which I shall review shortly.