I had the unique opportunity to meet the amazing Deborah Smith – the translator of this lovely book, and hear her talk about the translation process, and the Man Booker International, and her own publishing house – Tilted Access. It was a wonderful evening, and I am so grateful to Lancaster University and The Storey for making this event possible.
As someone with a keen interest in a translation, it was very refreshing to be able to speak to a woman who’s made it her entire life, and very affirming to know that you don’t have to be completely bilingual to be able to make words happen so beautifully across languages.
Here is my review of The Vegetarian, which was originally printed in my college’s magazine, and which I asked Deborah to sign for me:
The full review is pasted here:
I was first attracted to The Vegetarian because of the cover – a delicate white bird’s wing in front of a dark red background, calling to me, grabbing my attention. I’d heard of the book before – like every aspiring writer, I check every literary award shortlist obsessively, to see what’s “the competition”, what’s “in vogue” so to speak (sometimes even literally, what’s in Vogue, what are important famous people reading, it’s good to know stuff like that).
So I knew that it had won the Man Booker International, and I knew that it was an incredible translation. I am ashamed to admit that this is my first forey into Korean literature, and it already had so much expectation riding on it. I expected that book to be mind blowing. And it was. Sometimes, a novel slips into your life delicately, making a neat little space for itself, and stays there. When I was trying to explain the book to my friends, without giving too much plot details away, I’d resolve to calling it a psychological novel, but it’s so much more than that.
I recommended it to my housemates (both of them vegetarians), and so they picked it up. “This blurb,” one of them said, “claims that this book is darkly erotic. Is this some type of 50 Shades nonsense?”
When I got the book, I hadn’t actually paid attention to the blurb, but yes – apparently it was supposed to be “erotic”, and of all the things that I’d been expecting from this book, because of all the rave reviews, recommendations, and conversations with writer and translator friends, with all the hype I’d built in myself about it, “erotic” was one word that couldn’t be farther off. So I won’t talk about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about all the other things this novel is.
It’s amazingly introspective. Split in three parts, between the point of view of the vegetarian’s husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, the book chronicles the journey of one average, unremarkable middle-aged, middle-class woman into mental illness, as perceived by the people around her. It all starts with a dream that drives her to give up on eating meat. That one, seemingly innocent action, tilts everyone in her world to look at everything else she’s ever done differently, to find the root of the problem, to figure out what’s made her behave outside the norm.
It isn’t until the final part of the book, where her mental illness is finally named, that the reader can comprehend the depth of her issues. Through the point of view of her husband, she is just an uncharacteristically silent woman, unknowable, a little odd, perhaps, but not harmful as such, until she tries to take her own life. Her brother-in-law, on the other hand, sees her as an object of sexual desire. Perhaps it is in his part that the odd “eroticism” critics seem to find in the book comes into play, but in reality, reading through his chapters, it comes across as merely coercive, and more than a little unsettling, particularly in the part of the book where he, driven by the desire for her, rapes her sister – his wife, and then coerces her into sex, first with another man, then with him.
It isn’t until the final part of the novel, narrated by her sister, that the reader is allowed a glimpse at Yeong-hye not as an object to possess or desire, but as a person, and even that is arbitrary, as In-hye only discusses her sister as an inconvenience. She does, however, detail the childhood abuse that may have spurned her sister’s madness, and finds the words to describe her perceived insanity in detail.
At its core, The Vegetarian is a deeply emotional, disturbing in its detail, look at mental illness through the eyes of its witnesses, without offering them any sympathy for their callous dismissal of the real victim. The writing style, coming through the beautiful translation is intimate and emotional, riddled with lovely description, and stunted, bloodless dialogue which reveals the emotional and spiritual vegatation of the participants. It’s an amazingly rendered critique of society, and a bold challenge to tradition. It comes alive starkly through a masterful translation, and leaved the reader wanting more.
And here is my copy of the book, which Deborah was kind enough to sign as well: