I read a smart book for Smart People and thought it was pretty stupid

han-kang_the-vegetarianHave you ever read a book? A proper book? Like, sat down somewhere and started reading words on a page that is an even longer read than those Long Reads you read on different news and culture websites where, once you finish them, leave you in desperate need of a wee and a bit of Cat Stevens? ‘Cause I’ve read a book. It won the Man Booker Prize and all that guff. But as I found out myself, that doesn’t mean it’s worth a long read.

The Vegetarian, a novel by the Korean author Han Kang, has been lauded for its Goodness by the Reviewers, so that means it must be good, because the Reviewers are always pretty much right, because they’ve been quite mean about books in the past. Like, there was that book Katie Price wrote and they weren’t very nice about that, were they, even though Katie Price didn’t even write it, she just shouted at a mouse-haired SOAS grad for six weeks about a story she made up while she was having a couples’ bikini wax with Peter Andre. Anyway, if you’re quite harsh sometimes about movies and books and what’s on the TV, then when you do like something it must be Very Good.

I’d meant to read The Vegetarian for a while, actually, but I was busy reading decent books. I wanted to read it because I thought – right, I’ve read enough books by now that I might be able to read a dead smart book and actually get it, like I didn’t get The Grapes of Wrath (like many readers, I assume, I was expecting much more grapes or grape-related plot, so it was a disappointment from the off). I got it from a bookshop, too, so paid a ridiculous amount more than I would have paid good old tax-skirting Amazon. Therefore expected Greatness, or at least Goodness.

The premise of The Vegetarian centres on a woman who, after a strange and harrowing dream, becomes a vegetarian. This provides the catalyst for most of the book, a tale of visceral and devastating consequences of giving up meat that are at times, deeply unsettling to read and process. Told in three acts, it soon transpires that the protagonist’s concerns are less about butternut squash and more about self-annihilation. The writer takes imagery of nature and art and juxtaposes that with scenes of graphic violence and abuse.

Yet these scenes of violence are told in such a perfunctory, emotionless, matter-of-fact way that there is no literary entry to the empathy we should feel for the protagonist. The story is told from the point of view of three characters: the protagonist’s husband, her brother-in-law and finally, her sister narrates the coda. It’s true that the first-person narrative is not necessary for an empathetic response, but the first two narrations are so devoid of sympathy or regard for the protagonist that by the time the character of In-hye describes her sister’s plight, the story has advanced such that it is too late to get involved in it. The last chapter is somewhat rushed and is itself somewhat unsympathetic that one wonders the point of the novel altogether.

The novel has been translated from Korean. Around the time it was published, there was some controversy surrounding the translation, which some critics arguing that the language was stilted and “frequently in trouble with register and idiom”. The academic Charse Yun reported in Korean Expose that “10.9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated” and “5.7% of the original text was omitted.” The translator in question, Deborah Smith, admitted herself that “there can be no such thing as a translation that is not ‘creative’”. Indeed, the criticisms stretch to the argument that these “mistranslations” on behalf of non-native speakers take away Korean writers’ rightful place on the roster of accomplished authors along with the McEwans and Smiths and Rushdies and Prices.

But I don’t know Korean, so I can’t really make a criticism on whether the translation is to blame for its lack of empathy. What I can do is question the value of a novella about a woman’s relationship with her body sans any perspective from the woman herself. I enjoy the second-person narrative as a device, but for a plot that is so deeply personal to the individual, it seems imperative to get inside their mind.

The Vegetarian has been lauded primarily for its language and style, with SuperSmart Smarties’ newspaper The Guardian calling it “sensual, provocative and violent” and sees the sexually manipulative scenes in the second act as “seductive”. The Independent describes the disturbia of the second act as “an exciting and imaginative journey into obsession, lust, art and dreams.” While its true that the scenes are imaginative, it doesn’t make them any less disturbing and uncomfortable to read. What is lacking in the reviews is acknowledgement of the sexually possessive and even abusive nature of the scenes. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law takes advantage of her vulnerability in pursuit of his own artistic and sexual fantasies, yet this has been seen as a triumph of the evocative.

I just didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy it while I was reading it and I didn’t enjoy it when I finally finished the book and was free from the stark, emotionless and cold style that Kang felt was appropriate. I wanted to like it – I always want to like a book I’m reading. But it is hard to like a book that seems so shamelessly manipulative of its characters and its readers, to the point where you get the sense that the author would rather evoke shock than sympathy.

Maybe one day I’ll “get” the reasons behind plaudits of these novels that seem to escape me. Maybe the brilliance of David Lynch will one day descend on my cerebral cortex like a blue velvet sheet. Maybe I’ll have a beard to stroke one day. But for now, I feel no shame in describing a Smart Book for what it is: pretty damn stupid.

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