Han Kang`s novel hails the arrival of Korean fiction after winning The International Manbookers Prize.
It also demonstrated the power of the short-story as an art form. More than this, the book is a triumph of translation as an art-form. It reads effortlessly, so much so, that you can hear the characters voices shout off the pages.
As for her writing, there is a unmistakable dark and delicious texture, due in part to Hang`s imagination and to the translator`s dexterity. It`s no surprise that translator Deborah Smith also won the International Manbooker`s prize and deservedly so for Kang`s first translated novel.
Han Kang delivers a novel that says a lot about how brutality and emotional cruelty is often dressed up in middle class polite society.
Yeong-hye is a woman trapped in what seems to be a loveless marriage, the husband is an office worker on the rise and his dutiful albeit “dull” wife to all and sundry appears to be in an ordinary marriage. It`s the word “ordinary” or unremarkable which becomes some something of a slur, a put-down. In fact right from the outset, the reader is treated to the husband`s own caustic commentary .
“Before my wife turned vegetarian. Id always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time met her, I wasn’t even attracted to her”
The book shows how women are objectified and subjected to the vilification of men. They are in fact subordinates to the will of men and the ebb and flow of their machismo. The novel is far from academic or prosaic in its treatment, but deeply atmospheric and you are simply locked into it from beginning to end. More then a telling reflection on the subjugation of women to just second class citizens, its an illustration of how society develops animal pack mentality in its treatment of the “other”.
The allegorical story shows how we castigate and brutalize non- conformers and become feral or “animal-like” ourselves. The wife`s denial of meat is seen as an act of defiance, or an act of rebellion against her middle-class existence even to the point that she “denies” her husband`s own conjugal rights in the bedroom.
Somehow we become complicit in the whole affair, whilst we are disturbed and disgusted, we have ring-side seats to this tawdry affair.
Of course there`s a cinematic quality to the book but much more than this, it is the stripped back and fat-free writing, which may be economical with words, but so powerful in its intent. For horror fans, her imagination dishes up some wonderfully dark scenes of domestic discord with a chill factor of minus 10, reminiscent of Japanese suburban horror films such as The Ring. If this is anything to go by, The Vegetarian will leave you with an appetite for more Korean fiction and then some.
The Vegetarian. Author Han Kang Published by Portobello Books. (183 pages) Translated by Deborah Smith . Priced £7.99 from all good bookshops