Sex, violence and The Vegetarian: the brutality of Han Kang’s Booker winner

Given that Koreans enjoy a low rate of violent crime by international standards, how are we to comprehend the seeming ubiquity of abuse and madness in Korean fiction?

The verdict is in. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has not only received glowing praise in British and American media; it was the first Korean novel to be shortlisted for – and eventually win – a Booker Prize. One reviewer found it “glorious,” a “ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel,” another a “bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet.”

Speaking for myself, coming late to the author and starting from the Korean version, what is “system-shocking” is not so much Han’s well-executed but hardly exceptional novel, but its Anglophone reception. Rather than affirm death, The Vegetarian offers the standard injunction that we think about how we live today and consider whether we might live otherwise. And if The Vegetarian might be said to shock the anglophone reader’s diet, it does so only in the way MSG assaults the unaccustomed palate.

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Given that Koreans enjoy a low rate of violent crime by international standards, how are we to comprehend the seeming ubiquity of abuse and madness in Korean fiction?

The verdict is in. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has not only received glowing praise in British and American media; it was the first Korean novel to be shortlisted for – and eventually win – a Booker Prize. One reviewer found it “glorious,” a “ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel,” another a “bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet.”

Speaking for myself, coming late to the author and starting from the Korean version, what is “system-shocking” is not so much Han’s well-executed but hardly exceptional novel, but its Anglophone reception. Rather than affirm death, The Vegetarian offers the standard injunction that we think about how we live today and consider whether we might live otherwise. And if The Vegetarian might be said to shock the anglophone reader’s diet, it does so only in the way MSG assaults the unaccustomed palate.

Continue reading…
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