The winner of the "newly evolved" Man Booker International Prize 2016 is The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books).
2016 is the first year the prize has been awarded on the basis of a single work, as opposed to a body of work, after it was integrated with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Han and Smith will both share the £50,000 prize pot equally.
The Vegetarian is published by independent publisher Portobello Books, an imprint of Granta, and edited by Max Porter, who recently won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. It beat two other shortlisted works from independent publishers - Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, translated from Italian by editor at The New Yorker Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions), and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind, translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap (Faber).
Han's first novel to appear in English is a three-part story and allegory about modern day South Korea. It tells the tale of a dutiful Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, who, spurred on by a dream, decides to become a vegetarian to embrace a more “plant-like” existence. Yeong-hye’s decision, a "shocking act of subversion”, however, fractures familial life and proceeds to manifest itself in "frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement”, leading to “a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body”.
Han, born in Gwangju, South Korea, teaches creative writing at Seoul Institute of the Arts, and is the author of six published novels, three short story collections, and one book of poetry. Already successful in South Korea, she won the Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2005 for Mongolian Mark and the Today’s Young Artist Award in 2000.
The story, which is told in three parts from three different points of view, was praised by the Guardian for the "language shifts" shown in Smith’s translation, contrasting the "baffled irritation" of her husband's first-person narration in the first part with the "measured prose" of the protagonist's world.
Smith, who also translated Han's novel Human Acts (Portobello Books), only began learning Korean seven years ago, when aged 21. Following a BA in English Literature, and an avid reader of translated fiction, she taught herself a first year course in Korean while on the dole, before moving to London to do an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) which in turn led straight into a PhD. She has since launched her own not-for-profit publishing house, Tilted Axis Press, specialised in translating literature from Asia and Africa.
Han and Smith’s win was announced by critic and editor Boyd Tonkin during a dinner at the V&A. The Vegetarian, published by independent publishing house Portobello books, was chosen from 155 books by a judging panel chaired by editor Boyd Tonkin, including novelist Tahmina Anam, academic at Princeton David Bellos, editor and academic Daniel Medin at the American University of Paris and prize-winning poet Ruth Padel.
Tonkin, chair of the 2016 judging panel, said: "The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, is an unforgettably powerful and original novel that richly deserves to win the Man Booker International Prize 2016. After our selection of a diverse and distinguished longlist, and a shortlist of six truly outstanding novels in first-rate translations, the judges unanimously chose The Vegetarian as our winner."
He added that the story was "beautifully composed" and was both "lyrical and lacerating" in style. "This compact, exquisite and disturbing book will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers," he said. Adding that Smith’s "perfectly judged" translation matches its "uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn".
Emmanuel Roman, c.e.o. of Man Group, added: "I would like to congratulate Han Kang and Deborah Smith, the first winners of the newly evolved Man Booker International Prize, as well as all of this year’s finalists. We are very proud to sponsor the prize, which supports the recognition of talented authors and translators globally. The prize underscores Man Group's charitable focus on literacy and education and, together with the wider charitable activities of the Booker Prize Foundation, plays a very important role in promoting literary excellence on a global scale that we are honoured to support."