The Vegetarian

410gorh9G-L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_   The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is not what I had expected. With an innocuous beginning, the story quickly progresses from someone who has decided to become a vegetarian to a disturbed protagonist straddling fantasy and reality.  Like my recently reviewed Man Booker Finalist, A Little Life, The Vegetarian questions  whether it is better for the protagonist to survive or to die, and answers “…is it such a bad thing to die?”

Reviewers have used Kafka as the model for Han Kang’s storytelling.  Kafka was always a mystery to me, yet I remember a philosophy professor expounding on Kafka’s parables. His stories represented a world of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, but mostly strangeness, and always with a haunting ending. The Vegetarian meets all the criteria.

Although the focus of the book is Yeong-hye, the vegetarian, this slim book is narrated in three parts by others: Yeong-hye’s husband, who has an unsatisfactory office job; her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful visual artist; and her older sister, who owns a cosmetic store and works full-time to support her child and artist husband.

Yeong-hye’s mind crumbles slowly; at first, her demand to throw out all meat and refuse to eat meat seems reasonable, but she faces the fierce opposition of her father and her husband.  She battles tradition and becomes a victim of abuse.  Gradually, she loses weight and suffers from insomnia, eventually abandoning  any normalcy in her life.

After her husband leaves, her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her and lurid yet strange erotic sex scenes follow.  Finally, her sister places her in an asylum  and the reader is treated with scenes of force-feeding and depression.  In the end, everyone deserts Yeong-hye – family, physicians, friends; all but her loyal sister, who at times thinks about abandoning her to find relief from watching her sister’s decline.

In the end, her sister’s wondering just how close she is herself to losing her own mind makes a case for the slim thread of sanity with which every person struggles.

Although The Vegetarian is short – under two hundred pages – it has a heavy and thoughtful impact and is not for everyone.  Underlying its themes of abuse, eating disorders, sexual assault, and violence, however, readers may find some relatable truth in the vegetarian’s journey.   Porochista Khakpour in a review for the New York Times  calls it “a parable of personal choice, submission and subversion.”  Kafka would be proud.


Prague Kafka Statue

Related Review:  A Little Life

Books in Translation

With the recent announcement of the Man Booker International Award shortlist for books in translation, I recalled some of my favorite books that had me grateful for the translator.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s  memoir In Other Words is an inspiration to learn to read (and write) in another language – but I’m not there yet. 

My favorite translated author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón has led me through many satisfying 9780316044714_p0_v2_s192x300quests from The Shadow of the Wind to Prisoner of Heaven.  I looked for the cemetery of lost books when I toured Barcelona.  A new adventure  – Marina – the novel Carlos Ruiz  Zafón wrote just before The Shadow of the Wind, is now available in its English translation – and I eagerly anticipate the thrills.

Haruki Murakami’s absurdist books can be difficult to follow at times, but the unresolved ending of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage still haunts me.

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 will be awarded in May.  Their shortlist includes two I have on my to-read list: 

  • 9781609452865_p0_v4_s192x300Elena Ferrante’s  The Story of the Lost Child (the last of the four book series by the elusive Italian author).  I may start with My Brilliant Friend and proceed in a binge reading fury. If you have read them, advise me – do I need to read all four or can I skip to the award winner?
  • Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Their Mind by the Turkish winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. I meant to read his Museum of Innocence – maybe I’ll start there.   Have you read it?


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