Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ wins Man Booker International Prize

Korean novelist’s beautiful and disturbing book renders the reader spellbound

Translator Deborah Smith and author Han Kang will share the £50,000 prize equally. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Translator Deborah Smith and author Han Kang will share the £50,000 prize equally. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images


Literary fiction in translation has now taken a further, and vital step forward with the outcome of the newly revamped Man Booker International Prize.

The inaugural winner, as expected, is the South Korean writer Han Kang (45) for her disturbingly beautiful short novel The Vegetarian. It is a cautionary tale told in three acts from contrasting viewpoints which charts a young woman’s slow drift into apathy.

While the narrative exposes the plight of women in a male-dominated Korean society, it also takes a broader, philosophical look at suffering and grief, loneliness and the death of hope. It explores the brutal power shifts in relationships. On all levels, artistic and moral, it is a remarkable meditation with universal resonance. At its heart is the individual trying, and failing, to live. Deborah Smith’s translation, magnificently alert to the sensitive, sophisticated nuances and tonal variations, can only be described as inspired.

In the wake of a dream a quiet, unassuming young woman, Yeong-hye, decides to renounce meat. It seems ordinary enough. Yet it is not so simple: meat is fundamental to Korean cuisine and to renounce it amounts to rejecting one’s culture. But such notions are far too complex for her boorish husband, a bully with obvious and impersonal contempt for his quiet wife whose greatest asset until this strange decision was her passivity.

Lack of feeling

His lack of feeling is shocking: “I sometimes told myself that, even though the woman I was living with was a little odd, nothing particularly bad would come of it. I thought I could get by perfectly well just thinking of her as a stranger, or no, as a sister, or even a maid, someone who puts food on the table and keeps the house in good order.”

But her father responds more viciously. At a family meal, he decides to take action and forces a piece of meat into her mouth.

By the second act her brother-in-law attempts to draw closer to her. The narrative gathers momentum. By the closing sequence, in which Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye attempts to provide support, Han’s persuasive, insistent artistry has rendered the reader spellbound.

Make no mistake, in an age of hype, this marvellous novel, with its unsettling grace and menace, is a rare work. It was one of my books of year last year and Irish readers and book clubs have already responded to it.

Impressive long list

Few literary prize panels have so astutely selected an outstanding six-book shortlist, including four very good novels, from what was an impressive long list of 13 titles, most possessing serious claims.

That the prize was so competitive points to the strength of literary fiction in translation. The unsung heroes, the literary translators, have long campaigned to alert publishers to the quality of books in need of a wider readership. That wider readership is assured through English-language editions of novels, many of which have already been translated into a number of languages before securing a US or British publisher. It is fitting that Portobello, a small independent publisher with an established track record in publishing works in translation, was behind the winning work.

Among the contenders was the admittedly hyped international bestseller Elena Ferrante with The Lost Child, the fourth and concluding part of her fraught Neapolitan saga. Translated by Ann Goldstein, the phenomenon is something millions have embraced. As a member of the dissenting minority, I hated it for its relentlessness and lack of humour. The 2006 Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk was shortlisted for A Strangeness in My Mind, his likeable, noticeably most Dickensian, and meandering love song to his beloved Istanbul. It is translated by Ekin Oklap.

Both Ferrante and Pamuk have established international reputations for contrasting reasons. Yet neither of them won, which is significant.

This panel of judges choose the best book, not the biggest name, which was brave when the prize is emerging from what had been two previous awards – the Man Booker International Prize given to a body of work, and the much vaunted British Independent Foreign Fiction prize which had a shaky, uncertain stop-go existence yet always delivered fine winners. It contributed hugely to introducing readers to the vast and exciting world of literature beyond that written in English.

Truth teller

Also shortlisted and always a serious challenge, even to a favourite such as Han Kang, was the courageous Chinese truth teller and a potential Nobel Laureate, Yan Lianke, with The Four Books, translated by Carlos Rojas, about a dark and hidden part of Chinese history, the great famine which happened between 1958 and 1962, during which between 40 and 45 million Chinese starved to death while massive shipments of rice continued to be exported.

Austrian-born Robert Seethaler’s delicate and limpid beauty of a novel, A Whole Life, another of my books of the year, has also enjoyed a wide readership in Ireland, which will increase through this shortlisting. With its echoes of John Williams’s classic Stoner (1965), it tells the story of a taciturn man, much put-upon by fate, who lives out his life in a village in the Alps. It is melancholic and deeply touching, the sort of novel which will endure.

Charlotte Collins respected the understated profundity of the original German with a translation that conveys the poetry of the prose.

Dark horse

Finally, to the dark horse: Angola’s José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, translated by Daniel Hahn, tells the story of Angola as observed by a woman whose self-imposed exile is interrupted by a child’s curiosity.

The £50,000 prize is divided equally between the author and the translator: this is a major innovation. It takes time for a literary award to establish itself. Yet the Man Booker International Prize 2016 has done its homework. Market research has established that although fiction in translation only accounts for 3.5 per cent of literary fiction, it claims 7 per cent of the sales. Also, the volume of sales of translated fiction has increased by 91 per cent since 2001. These figures reflect sales in Britain; the Irish response to fiction in translation has always been stronger.

In a year in which the International Dublin Literary Award, for so long a champion of translated fiction, only has four translated titles on its 10-book shortlist, the new-look Man Booker International could well prove a serious challenger to its position as an award that opens the literary world to readers who are only too eager to experience it.

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