Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What I Read: The Vegetarian

What piqued my curiosity about The Vegetarian was the story of its translation—or rather, its translator. An article from the English edition of The Korea Herald sums up the situation:

[Smith's] evocative translation has been the topic of much debate here since the Booker win last month. There have even been reports comparing excerpts from the original text and translated version line-by-line, with some suggesting that there are instances of mistranslation. . . 
Aware of the controversy here concerning her qualifications as a translator of Korean literature, Smith, a 28-year-old British national who first learned Korean six years ago, spoke of the “danger of excluding or prioritizing certain translators” based solely on qualifications. “Love of literature, patience and dedication are more important,” she argued.

It's inspiring, in a way. If Smith can do it, why can't I? Maybe not with Korean, but still. I put the book on my GoodReads TBR and went about my business.

Some time later, a friend of mine posted her own vacation TBR stack on Facebook and I saw The Vegetarian in the pile. I commented on my own interest in the story, and said friend was kind enough to mail me the book after she was done with it, so here I am!

Image courtesy Portobello Books

The Vegetarian is a weird little book. I definitely felt drawn to keep reading and to see how this would all play out, but I don't know that I enjoyed it. Or to be more precise; I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it, but I definitely didn't understand it. But I don't think I needed to?

The novel, like so many have pointed out, isn't really about the protagonist becoming a vegetarian. It's not even about the protagonist at all (which makes the appellation of "protagonist" kind of doubtful), but about how important people in her life respond to her decision: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her brother-in-law's wife (her sister). It's also about control and how people react when faced with a woman practicing her own autonomy.

It's a short read; Smith's translation is graceful and fluid, and the story (such as it is) is compelling, so it's definitely the kind of story that draws you along. Perfect for commutes or vacations, or for people looking to add to their #weneeddiversebooks list.

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