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Friday, December 2, 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Hogarth, 208 pages, $15 (c2007, US ed. 2016)
Translated by Deborah Smith

This is not a mystery.

Occasionally I read books that aren’t mysteries! I’m especially fascinated by what wins awards. “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

“The Vegetarian” was interesting for many reasons. It begins with a woman giving up eating meat because of a nightmare and ends in a flurry of symbols. In between is a contemplation on the cultural role of Korean women. Although the book is about the madness/enlightenment of one particular Korean woman, Han’s cultural context is South Korea.

Let me say a few words about the translation. When a translated book is a little clunky or awkward, it’s hard to know if that’s what the original sounds like. Sometimes mystery books are translated because they have good plots or interesting characters, and not especially because they are great literature. Translated books always come with a caveat. Deborah Smith, the translator, is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that “The Vegetarian” reads elegantly and powerfully in English. It is easy to make the assumption that it directly mirrors the elegance and power of the book written in Korean. The second reason is that Smith learned how to read (and speak?) Korean about seven years ago. Now that’s crazy good. I don’t know if Smith has actually been to Korea (I haven't), but her translation presents the flavor and atmosphere of a different world.

This is not a happy book. Its three parts become bleak, bleaker, and bleakest. Kim Yeong-hye is a relatively young woman in a loveless marriage. She is on automatic pilot when she has her dream. Her family, especially a menacing father, is less than supportive. The narrative is told in the first person, but by three different first persons. First, by her deadwood of a husband, then by her deadwood of a brother-in-law, and finally by her sympathetic, but not empathetic, sister, Kim In-hye. It is at the end that In-hye glimpses what Yeong-hye sees, and we have an insight into Yeong-hye’s behavior.

This is well worth reading, but it is not for everyone.

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