The Vegetarian and Human Acts by Han Kang

The Vegetarian Han Kang 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.

Human Acts Han KangAlso 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.


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31 responses to “The Vegetarian and Human Acts by Han Kang

  1. have to finish one book and read another one, and then to The Vegetarian, I think that will be my first translated from the Korean


  2. Two very interesting sounding books! – The Vegetarian particularly strikes my fancy. I’ve never read anything by any Korean writers before!


  3. madeandsouled

    I recently read The Vegetarian and thought it was excellent and unsettling. Loved the way the prose was translated, too. Human Acts is on my “to read” pile, straight after I finish my current book.


  4. I’ve never read Korean fiction before (Korean-American I’ve tried) so I’ve been on the lookout for a synopsis that grips me. I really like the sound of Han Kang’s fiction and I was wondering if I should pick up The Vegetarian or Human Acts. Your review makes me lean far more to The Vegetarian. I’m attracted to the plot and the themes it explores. I may need to read additional views on The Vegetarian but I’m reasonably sure I’ll get it.


  5. Sarah

    I bought ‘The Vegetarian’ a couple of weeks ago and it’s a couple of books down in my TBR pile. It sounds so disturbing and powerful, I can’t wait to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m finding the covers and the descriptions of what the books are about very creepy. Is that fair to say or a misinterpretation? I don’t mean creepy like horror stories, but something more realistic than that.


  7. Deepika Ramesh

    Thank you for this post. I intend to read ‘The Vegetarian’ soon. And, I never knew that readers were reminded of Murakami’s work. I am glad you clarified it.


  8. Like you, I found Human Acts to be the more powerful of the two and would have preferred that to have been long listed, but The Vegetarian was still one of the best books I read last year.


  9. This looks super interesting! I haven’t read any Korean fiction books but I may need to check this out. Thanks! I’m new to book blogging. Would love to connect 🙂


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  12. Looking at the summary of the story you gave, I think Human Acts is more interesting for it’s more like historical fiction involving a certain regime in a country. How we perceive our history is sometimes more engaging than talking about the subject of gender. Well, that’s in my opinion.


  13. I must finish my review of The Vegetarian – I thought it was beautifully constructed and balanced, and quite different from what I was expecting. I thought it presented very interesting portrayals of different philosophies of how to live lives in society. So glad it made it through to the shortlist.


  14. I just read The Vegetarian, helped by your post, it was on my to read list. I think I have said before that reading translated literature is very akin to seeing foreign films. If you do not know the original language, it is difficult to quite see what you might be missing. While I am sure that this was a very faithful translation, there were places where it seemed to me that the construction was very strange, or not quite what the author intended. The whole though was better than the sum of its parts and it was really useful to have been told that originally this was published as separate pieces.


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