The Vegetarian by Han Kang wins the 2016 International Booker Prize Award
Translator Debra Smith. Han Kang
" there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century" from Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag
The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a shockingly, violent, deeply disturbing account of tne events that ensue when the very normal unremarkable wife of an average Korean corporate employees, against all cultural norms, has a dream which causes her to become a vegetarian. The work has received very well deserved highly laudatory reviews in major publications. . I will at once say I think Han Kang is an important new writer for those of us in the Anglophone literary world. As i read the finely crafted beautifully translated work I was brought to mind Susan Sontag's discussion of a sensibility she called "The Literature of Cruelty". (Her examples are above, in the 21st century I think we can add Roberto Bolano's 2666). I want here to reflect a bit on the place this set in modern Seoul work has among the European pre World War II classics mentioned by Sontag.
The Vegetarian has three sections. In the opening segment we meet Yeong-Kye and her husband. The story takes place in a society which values conformity, where one gets along by going along. Then the couple's life is totally transformed when the wife has a dream which she sees as a message directing her to become a vegetarian. The dream sequences are very striking, hard to understand and opened ended, as a dream piece should be. I see the dream as opening the wife to the vision of her world built on murder, cruelty, purification and a thinly disguised Hobbesian struggle for dominance. By eating meat she is somehow signifying her acquiescence in these horrors, as if she were an accomplice to a crime, preventing her from speaking out. The wife begins to lose weight, her husband tries to tell her humans require meat, it is necessary for survival. In one horrific very vivid scene the husband is invited for the first time to have dinner at a banquet for top employees at his corporation, potentially a big career move up for him. The huge problem is the numerous courses of meats, exquisitely prepared that will be served. If his wife will not eat, she will be seen as insulting her hosts. This section of the novel has a horrific close. It is as though the wife cannot bear the inherent cruelty that is the seeming price of society. She is driven mad by this or uses madness to hide from a reality she is not equipped to articulate.
The second segment is centered on the brother in law of Yeong-Hye, married to her sister. He is an artist who has developed a sexual fixation on his sister in law centering on a birthmark. He imagines her body and convinces her to allow him to paint her nude, not as depicting her but with her as the canvas. I am not sure I understand how this as triggered by her conversion to vegetarianism or my placing the story in the literature of cruelty but I am sure it is all tied in.
Yeong's parents and her sister are all very worried about her. They see her refusal to eat meat as a repudiation of their way of life, of their family history and symptomatic of a potentially suicidal breakdown. Section three's most exciting segment is a family reunion dinner. The father of the sisters is very upset over his daughter's refusal to eat meat. Something very brutal and cruel is done to Yeong in an effort to return her to carivoire status.
I don't want to tell a lot of the plot of this work. It, to me, can be read as an indictment of a society built on death, on the murder of the natural world from which humans arose. Yeong is not at all an intellectual who has derived her position from reflections. She herself cannot really understand why she can no longer eat meat. She retreats into madness as her only escape.
The Vegetarian is a deeply disturbing work. It is compulsive reading. It can, I think, also be seen as a work about the nature of families, about conformist pressures, and deeper down into atavistic roots suggesting to be human, to live, is to murder. It can be seen as dealing with the impact of life in a huge incredibly crowded hive life city in a very consumer status driven society built on all following social norms.
The Vegetarian will stay with you for a long time.
I strongly endorse this book and hope to read more of her translated works.
Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea, and moved to Seoul at the age of ten. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her writing has won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today's Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. The Vegetarian, her first novel to be translated into English, was published by Portobello Books in 2015, and her second novel to be translated into English, Human Acts, will be published by Portobello in 2016. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. - from the publisher's webpage.
Portobello Books is one of the leading publishers of works in translation, important nonfiction, debut works by promising writers as well as books by leading contemporary authors, including Nobel and Booker Prize Winners. In just a few minutes on their very well done webpage I added numerous works to my "to be read" list.