South Korean author Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction with ‘The Vegetarian’, an unsettling novel in which a woman’s decision to stop eating meat has devastating consequences.
Han beat literary stars, including elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante and Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for the £50,000 prize, awarded during a ceremony at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Literary critic Boyd Tonkin, chair of the panel that chose the winner from 155 entries, said Han’s book combined “tenderness and terror” in a tale of “volcanic, visceral intensity”.
The award is the international counterpart to Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize and is open to books published in any language that have been translated into English. The prize money will be split evenly between Han and her 28-year-old translator, Deborah Smith, who only began learning Korean less than seven years ago.
Han, 45, is the first Korean writer to be nominated for the prize, which was founded in 2005. ‘The Vegetarian’ is the first of her books to be translated into English. It tells the story of Yeong-hye, a dutiful wife whose decision to forego meat uproots her whole existence. Han said the book was inspired by the idea of “a woman who desperately didn’t want to belong to the human race any longer” and built on her 1997 short story about “a woman who actually turns into a fruit”.
The author said she wanted to explore “human violence, and also (ask) a question about human dignity.”
The prize — named after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC — was previously a career honour, but changed this year to recognise a single work of fiction. The change comes amid signs that English-speaking readers are slowly becoming more receptive to translated literature. Research firm Nielsen Book says the British market for translated fiction almost doubled between 2001 and 2015 — but still accounts for just 1.5 per cent of all fiction sales.
Man Booker is one of the few literary prizes to recognise translators alongside authors, and marks an extraordinary victory for Smith: ‘The Vegetarian’ is not just the first Korean novel she had translated, but the first she had read. “For a short novel, it felt like climbing a mountain,” she said.
Han’s book beat five other finalists, including ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ by pseudonymous Neapolitan writer Ferrante, and Pamuk’s Istanbul-set ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’.
The other contenders were Yan Lianke’s ‘The Four Books’, one of the few Chinese novels to tackle the Great Famine of the 1950s and 1960s; Angolan revolution saga ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’ by Jose Eduardo Agualusa; and the Alpine story ‘A Whole Life’ by Austria’s Robert Seethaler.
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