Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ Deserves Its 2016 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction

A short, brutal novel about consumption and human violence, 'The Vegetarian' deserves the award.

The Man Booker International Prize for 2016 has gone to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a short novel that balances cool, precise prose with corporeal and symbolic violence. A deserving winner, The Vegetarian is the most placidly constructed yet disconcerting fiction on the shortlist, a fitting tribute for a novel that opposes the power of dreams and metamorphosis to the cruder savagery of mindless consumption.

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“In a style both lyrical and lacerating,” said judge Boyd Tonkin, “[The Vegetarian] reveals the impact of this great refusal both on the heroine herself and on those around her.” During a ceremony for the award last night in London, its judges revealed The Vegetarian was a unanimous selection.

First awarded to Ismail Kadare in 2005, the Man Booker International transitioned last year from a biennial to an annual prize, and is now distributed on the basis of a single work. Last year’s winner, Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai, won the award for his entire oeuvre.

Kang, who was educated in Seoul and has attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the U.S, has won various literary awards in South Korea, where she now teaches at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Her translator, Deborah Smith, whose work on The Vegetarian has been widely praised, is from the U.K. The two will split a £50,000 prize.

The novel, published in the U.S. this February by Hogarth, tells the story of Yeong-hye, a housewife who becomes a vegetarian after an unsettling dream. Its first section, “The Vegetarian,” is narrated by her incredulous husband, whose only gift is for uncovering new misogynies. Having married his wife because of her unremarkable nature — before turning to vegetarianism, her lone quirk is her preference for going bra-less — he grows baffled by her blank, “unperturbed” state and sexual disinterestedness. Yeong-hye’s withered countenance and matter-of-fact indifference come to unsettle her family members, too, who intervene with cruelty and even sexual obsession. A middle section, told from the perspective of a brother-in-law, intensifies the novel’s attack on the pervasiveness of consumption as a base motive in both art and social life. In The Vegetarian, few pieties — save a belief in the dangerous, almost inhuman power of art and dreams — are left intact.

Kang’s novel beat out a competitive shortlist, one that featured a heavy favorite, at least for American audiences, in Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, the final volume of that author’s Neapolitan Quartet. But Kang’s win isn’t a tremendous upset. Her novel was already a best-seller in the U.K., where recent studies show that translated fiction, although a slim part of the overall market, is selling better than its English counterpart. In South Korea — where The Vegetarian was published in 2007 — the novel was adapted for a 2009 film by Woo-Seong Lim.

“Writing a novel is a way of questioning for me,” Kang said in her acceptance speech last evening. “I just try to complete my questions through the process of my writing, and I try to stay in the questions.” She continued: “When I was writing The Vegetarian, I wanted to question about being human, and I wanted to describe a woman who desperately didn’t want to belong to the human race any longer and desperately wanted to reject being [with] humans who commit such violence.”

Judging by its title and press copy, Kang’s next novel to appear in the U.S. will extend her refusal to human violence. Human Acts: A Novel, also translated by Deborah Smith, will be published by Hogarth in January of 2017. It tells the story of a brutal killing in the wake of “a viciously suppressed student uprising” in Gwangju, South Korea, 1980.