Monday, Oct 03, 2022
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In The Cutting Room

A brilliant novel has a three-pronged approach to terrifying madness

The only memories I have of Korea are indistinct. I went only once, and was mostly in hotels. I spent three days almost entirely on a diet of beef, not because I hate cows, but because that was all they seemed to eat there. Or maybe my companions were extremely fond of beef. Either way, it seems fitting that the first Korean book I’ve ever read would be titled The Vegetarian. There is nothing particularly Korean about this book, one could say. No pungent ethnicities or cute ways of speaking are on display. It’s just a brilliant book, and the deserving winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Han Kang is an author with extreme skills. She tells her story well. She keeps her focus laser-sharp on the hearts of her humans. She evokes atmosphere, time and place quite effortlessly. Like all the best books, this one is hard to classify. But I read it as a horror story. The kind of horror that nestles up to you on the sofa, all warm and cuddly and fuzzy, and then sneaks its fangs in when you least expect it.

Han is an author of some repute in Korea. She is 45 and she also sings. A CD of her singing her own compositions has been rel­eased in Korea. Very few of her works have been translated into English so far, but this should change now. The Vegetarian and Human Acts are the two works most commonly available. Compliments are due to translator Deborah Smith for capturing her spirit, which is elusive and tricksy. Han can pull off little atmospheric shifts that remind you of Ruth Rendell, or Philip K. Dick, and she is skilful in evoking beauty.

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