Introducing "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang [RTWBC]

As previously announced, the fiction book we’re reading for this month’s Reading the World Book Club is The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Since I already read this one—taught it in my class last year, more on that below—I thought I’d start out this month’s discussions with a bit of an overview.

The Book

I remember having a conversation with Deborah Smith about how she hoped that Crown would use the same cover that Portobello did when they brought out this book. Well, instead of using the collage of meat and body parts (that tongue in the lower right is still unsettling to me), Crown decided to go with the striking red background and a silhouette of a woman who seems to be trying to either escape the ground, or grow out of it. (Both interpretations of which make sense, given the plot.)

Speaking of the plot, here’s the U.S. jacket copy:

A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul

Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.

The novel is broken up into three distinct sections, each of which is about Yeong-hye, but narrated by someone else: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister, all of whom are pretty shitty people. Through these three movements—which were initially published as separate short stories in Korea—the reader is witness to Yeong-hye complete dissolution from an average housewife to (SPOILER ALERT) a woman confined to a mental institution believing that she is a tree.

Portobello brought this book out last year and got quite a bit of attention for it. Here in the States it was actually selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2016. Gabe Habash gave it a starred review in PW:

There is much to admire in Han’s novel. Its three-part structure is brilliant, gradually digging deeper and deeper into darker and darker places; the writing is spare and haunting; but perhaps most memorable is its crushing climax, a phantasmagoric yet emotionally true moment that’s surely one of the year’s most powerful. This is an ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable novel.

It even received a glowing review from Porochista Khakpour in the New York Times:

All the trigger warnings on earth cannot prepare a reader for the traumas of this Korean author’s translated debut in the Anglophone world. At first, you might eye the title and scan the first innocuous sentence — “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” — and think that the biggest risk here might be converting to vegetarianism. (I myself converted, again; we’ll see if it lasts.) But there is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel.

The book seems to be doing quite well, which is great, since Han Kang and Deborah Smith deserve it, and because it hopefully marks the beginning of a moment for South Korean literature.

South Korean Literature

Not to dwell on that statement too much, but there does seem to be a growing interest in Korean writing. It sort of started with Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, which Ed Park wrote about for the New Yorker.

Speaking of the New Yorker, in January, Mythili Rao published a piece there entitled Can a Big Government Push Bring the Nobel Prize in Literature to South Korea? In this article, she talks about the efforts of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to help promote the publication and promotion of Korean literature. These efforts range from funding complete translations of literary works (even before they have a publisher), to promotional grants (which is why Bae Suah and Deborah Smith will be touring the U.S. later this year), to travel grants for editors (which is how Ross Ufberg, Will Evans, and I ended up in Seoul last year1).

There’s even this unexpected Vanity Fair list of Korean books to read now. (Unexpected in the sense that these sort of lists are so BuzzFeed and LitHub, not what I usually associate with Vanity Fair.)

With three Bae Suah titles on the horizon—A Greater Music, The Owls’ Absence, and Recitation—a couple Jung Young-Moon titles coming out from Dalkey and Deep Vellum, and The Vegetarian doing so well, we could be approaching critical mass . . . And the more that North Korea is in the news, the more attention people will be paying to this part of the world . . .

An Excerpt

You can read a decent-sized extract from this novel over at Words Without Borders. Here are the first few paragraphs.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers—neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing.

However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis—I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.

I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I would be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills.

And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world.

The Author

Han Kang has made quite a name for herself over the past number of years. She’s published at least nine books—including Human Acts, which just came out in the UK—and won a couple big awards—the Yi Sang Literary Award and Today’s Young Artist Award. According to this article on _list, J.M.G. Le Clézio considers her to be a future Nobel Prize winner. (Not sure what that’s worth, but it’s interesting to note.)

LitHub recently ran an interview with her, which includes a lot about The Vegetarian, including this bit:

Bethanne Patrick: The events and themes in your novel are extremely potent: Physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, self-harm, eroticism, much more. Have any reader or critic reactions surprised you? Have they, for instance, fixed on one aspect of the story and missed another?

Han Kang: I think this novel has some layers: questioning human violence and the (im)possibility of innocence; defining sanity and madness; the (im)possibility of understanding others, body as the last refuge or the last determination, and some more. It will be inevitable that different aspects are more focused on by different readers and cultural backgrounds. If I could say one thing, this novel isn’t a singular indictment of the Korean patriarchy. I wanted to deal with my long-lasting questions about the possibility/impossibility of innocence in this world, which is mingled with such violence and beauty. These were universal questions that occupied me as I wrote it.

If you’re curious, there’s also this feature in BookPage.

The Translator

Deborah Smith (on the left in the picture above) is crazy talented. She’s a fantastic translator, which is why she recently won the Art Foundation Literary Translation Award. She’s finishing her Ph.D. at SOAS in London, and she’s launching Tilted Axis, a new publisher dedicated to bringing out works from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

She was recently interviewed for The Quietus by Jen Calleja about all of these things.

How is it that you came to translate Han Kang? What’s your relationship with her like?

DS: I read The Vegetarian and fell in love with it. A year later, I was invited to go and speak at the London Book Fair (which I’d never even heard of before), as they were gearing up for Korea being the market focus country in 2014. I met Max Porter there, Kang’s editor at Portobello, sent him my sample, and the rest is history.

Possibly the best thing about the whole experience is that Kang and I are now really good friends. It’s as much of a pleasure and privilege to know her as a person as it is to translate her work. She’s been over for two UK publicity tours, which means lots of time to chat on trains etc., and she was hear all last summer for a writer’s residency in Norwich, where I got to meet her son too.

Whenever I visit Korea she buys me lunch and takes me to a gallery. As if all this wasn’t enough, she has incredible respect for translation as a creative, artistic practice – she insists that each English version is ‘our book’, offered to share her fees with me when she found out I wasn’t getting paid for translating her publicity stuff, always asks the editor to credit me, and does so herself whenever she’s interviewed. Too good to be true.

What are your next translation projects?

DS: Alongside Han Kang, there’s only one other author I’ve chosen to translate so far – Bae Suah. Her work is radical both stylistically and politically, influenced by her own translation practice (she’s translated the likes of Kafka, Pessoa, and Sadeq Hedayat into Korean). Her language is simply extraordinary. I first came across her when I read some elderly male critic castigating her for ‘doing violence to the Korean language’, which of course was catnip to me, especially as I’d recently discovered Lispector doing pretty much the same to Portuguese.

Hopefully we’ll be able to get Deborah on the podcast this month . . .

My Class

One last thing. Every year, I make my spring class on World Lit & Translation read eight recent works in translation. (Generally from eight different countries and eight different presses. This is probably the only class these students will ever take in which they read books originally written in more than one language. Which is sort of sad.) After talking about the book, we talk to the translator, and then argue about which book deserves to be the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” This is mostly a way of getting the students to talk about how they evaluate books—the readability, the difficulty of the translation—and the politics of awarding prizes—should we look for authors from areas that are usually overlooked, should we award the “best” book or the one that’s going to get the most readers, etc.

Anyway, last year, The Vegetarian won the class’s award. They were all enamored with the book, with it’s politics, and with Deborah. It was up against The Physics of Sorrow, Modiano, Jon Gnarr, and several other worthy titles. But there’s something about this particular book that struck a nerve with all of them, and hopefully will with everyone participating in the RTWBC as well!

So go get a copy and feel free to post any and all comments, thoughts, questions, objections, criticisms, or whatever down below, on Twitter using #RTWBC, or at the Facebook Group.

Tomorrow or Thursday I’ll get up some information about the other RTWBC book this month: Diorama by Rocío Céron.

1 And which led to this part of Mythili’s article:

Chad Post made a similar L.T.I.-sponsored trip to Seoul, with Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum, and Ross Ufberg, of New Vessel Press, last winter. “They paid for the whole thing and were incredibly generous in every way,” Post said. “We stayed in this amazing hotel with the best toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. The whole thing was wonderful.”

Yes. The toilet was that amazing. Trust me.

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