Grouped by Summer 2016, Books and writers, and Short read

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.