Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ won the Man Booker International Prize Monday, making her the first Korean author to bag the award. Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith, will share the 50,000 pounds ($72,300) cash prize equally.
The Man Booker International Prize is different from the Man Booker Prize, which is limited to fiction written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The International Prize, established in 2004, is awarded to original works of any language, translated and widely available in English.
Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea, and attended Yonsei University to study Korean literature. She has won numerous literary awards in South Korea but ‘The Vegetarian’ was the first of her works to be translated into English. It was published by Portobello Books in 2015.
Smith, who taught herself Korean only seven years ago, was praised by Boyd Tonkin, chairman of the judging panel, for her “perfectly judged translation” that he said matched the book’s “uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn."
‘The Vegetarian’ is the story of an ordinary woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to turn vegetarian in a bid to seek a more "plant-like" life, according to reviews of the book. This, in turn, draws great ire from the men in her life and brings to light a journey of violence. The novel reportedly showcases Korean culture and the patriarchal values that it thrives on.
Tonkin went on to describe the three-part novel as “concise, unsettling and beautifully composed," according to reports, adding: “It’s almost an outlandish story — a story that could topple over in to crude horror or melodrama, or just over-emphatic allegories, but it has extraordinary poise and tact and control."
The duo fought off competition from the likes of Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk for ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’ (translated by Ekin Oklap); the much hyped ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ written under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein); José Eduardo Agualusa’s ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ (translated by Daniel Hahn); and Yan Lianke’s ‘The Four Books’ (translated by Carlos Rojas).
This was the first year where instead of judging the writer’s entire body of work, the committee considered only one title. In the past, notable names like Ismail Kadare (Albania), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Philip Roth (United States) and most recently László Krasznahorka (Hungary) have won this prize.