Thursday, 2 June 2016

#amreading 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang
"The sight of her lying there utterly without resistance, yet armoured by the power of her own renunciation, was so intense as to bring tears to his own eyes"

This year's Man Booker International Prize winner is a truly memorable novel by South Korean writer Han Kang whose work has been translated into English, for the first time, by Deborah Smith.

I'm a huge fan of Japanese literature from the likes of Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and  Hiromi Kawakami, but had never read a Korean novel before largely as they are much less frequently translated into English than Japanese titles. I approached the novel with expectations based on reading novels like The Lake and Strange Weather in Tokyo and inevitably wondered what sort of influence Japanese literature would have had on Korean writers but I was also intrigued by Deborah Smith who was making her debut as a translator.

The Vegetarian is a novel in three chapters, in fact they were each published as separate novellas originally. The story concerns the heroine Yeong-Hye an average and unremarkable house-wife who one day decides to empty the freezer of meat; declaring herself to be vegetarian.

The opening chapter is a first person narrative from the perspective of Yeong-Hye's husband, Mr Cheong, who struggles to deal with his wife's new resolve. How will he cope when his wife accompanies him to dinner with his boss? Desperate for help he invites Yeong-Hye's family to dinner to where her father violently forces his daughter to eat a piece of pork - this is visceral and unfaltering writing that is innately uneasy to read.

The second chapter concerns Yeong Hye's brother-in-law who becomes obsessed with Yeong-Hye's body once he discovers that she is concealing a distinctive birthmark - a Mongolian Spot. The final chapter is set several years in the future when Yeong-Hye has lost contact with her entire family apart from her sister In-Hye who visits Yeong-Hye in a psychiatric hospital.

This is a novel about a family in crisis born out of one member no longer being willing to conform to social and societal norms. Han Kang expertly structures the novel around the three long chapters that explore the voices around Yeong-Hye. Though the narrative is never hers, Yeong-Hye remains the focus of the novel throughout.

Each chapter features dream sequences which blur the everyday and ethereal and provide the reader with rich and dynamic prose. The fact that these sequences work so well in The Vegetarian is a huge credit to the work of Deborah Smith who achieves a translation that is wonderfully readable in English whilst at the same time profoundly different to English language novels.

Off the back of reading this novel I'm sure I won't be alone in seeking out more Korean fiction and certainly more from the Han Kang/Deborah Smith partnership.     

I read this novel on paperback in May 2016 in West Malling, Kent

The Vegetarian by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith, published by Portobello Books, 160 pages

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