Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang and translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith tells the story of Yeong-hye who suddenly declares she will no longer eat meat after having a disturbing dream. Originally published as separate “novelettes”, the three parts of the story are told from the point of view of her husband, brother-in-law and sister respectively who are all outraged by her decision to become a vegetarian in a society where refusing to eat meat is extremely rare.
Some elements of the story such as the first part narrated by Yeong-hye’s emotionally detached husband were vaguely reminiscent of the novels of Haruki Murakami but that comparison really doesn’t do justice to the unique atmosphere of ‘The Vegetarian’. As Yeong-hye’s obsession begins to manifest itself in extreme ways to the point where she rejects all food and attempts to live as a tree, Kang explores broader social issues surrounding gender politics through Yeong-hye’s relatives’ reaction to her mental illness in spare, precise prose. The absence of Yeong-hye’s own voice as she becomes increasingly disconnected from yet also imprisoned by society is particularly unsettling. Subtle and surreal, ‘The Vegetarian’ is a tightly controlled novella which boldly takes the reader to some very unexpected places.
Also translated from the Korean by Smith, ‘Human Acts’ tells the interconnected stories of the victims of the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea when labour unionists and student activists protesting against the military dictatorship led by army general Chun Doo-hwan were massacred by soldiers in May 1980. In the opening chapter, fifteen-year-old Dong-ho is trying to find out what has happened to his best friend and ends up working in a temporary morgue with students Seon-ju and Eun-sook. Later chapters are set several years after the massacre has taken place and explore the devastating consequences of censorship and trauma among the victims.
Kang’s family left the city when she was nine years old shortly before the massacre occurred. Her second novel to be translated into English is therefore a deeply personal one and the blurring between fiction and non-fiction is particularly poignant in the final chapter as Kang comes to terms with the terrible events which have cast a long shadow over South Korea’s recent history. The unrelentingly violent imagery throughout the story is harrowing but never gratuitous although it is often the seemingly more mundane observations alongside the descriptions of torture which convey the horror of the massacre most effectively.
In a short introduction to ‘Human Acts’, Smith describes the challenges of translating “brick-thick Gwangju dialect” and tonal shifts between the different narrative voices. Her definition of a faithful translation prioritises the effect on the reader over technical or grammatical accuracy and it is Smith’s continued focus on conveying the emotional impact of Kang’s prose which makes both ‘The Vegetarian’ and Human Acts’ such powerful novels. Having read the two books close together, I personally felt that ‘Human Acts’ had the bigger impact on me, but I still think ‘The Vegetarian’ has a very strong chance of being shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize next month.