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Weekly Round-up: The Vegetarian, a meaty winner

Weekly Round-up: The Vegetarian, a meaty winner

Han Kang's The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, has won the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Why should it be the next book you buy? Boyd Tonkin, chair of judges, gave a very concise reason when he announced the winning novel at the prize dinner this week. ‘This book will stay with you for a very long time indeed. As long, I suspect, as your reading life itself.’

Han Kang and Deborah Smith, who split the £50,000 prize between them, made a wonderful double-act on the night – as they clearly did working on the book itself. When the winner was announced they took to the stage to applause of Last Night of the Proms duration. Of similar heights and both with shoulder-length black hair it made one wonder if, like dogs and their owners, translators and novelists come to resemble one another (another shortlistee, José Eduardo Agualusa, and his translator Daniel Hahn were doppelgangers too).

Han Kang's first words were very touching: ‘I am happy for Deborah. My Friend. Don't cry.’ Deborah Smith was in floods and perhaps that's not surprising. At 28 she had just scooped the biggest prize in translated literature for working on a book in a language she only started learning at 21 and never having learned any foreign language before. It is a quite remarkable achievement.

Having consoled her friend, the softly-spoken Han Kang went on to describe how she wrote The Vegetarian a decade ago and she has ‘walked a long way away from the book’. Its win has brought her back. Her writing, she explained, is about questions: ‘I try and answer my questions – sometimes painful, sometimes demanding’ and she looks to move ‘from human violence to human dignity’. An excerpt from her speech can be seen here.

When it was Deborah Smith's turn to address the guests she pointed out that ‘you don't usually, as your first translating job, get to translate one of the most extraordinary contemporary novels in the world’. She went on to, jokingly one assumes, to suggest that translators are competitive and are usually ‘secretly trying to poison one another, or’, brandishing the Man Booker International Prize trophy in her hand, ‘bludgeon to death – which you could, this trophy is very heavy.’ Luckily for the other translators in the room she wasn't up to the job, the excitement having left her feeling ‘a bit faint and a bit sick’.

Seeing the very obvious bond between Han Kang and Deborah Smith rather illustrated something touched on by Helena Kennedy, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, in her opening remarks: ‘The prize celebrates our relationship to the world,’ she said. ‘It is one of the many reasons why we have to have our gates open wide to the world and celebrate the idea that we're reaching out and experiencing other cultures, other worlds.’

As if to echo her words, the initial reports of The Vegetarian's victory were as global as the prize itself. The New York Times and the Korea Times both carried details, as did the Chandigarh Tribune in India and Anadolu in Turkey, it featured on the BBC and Aljazeera, in the Times of India and the Dubai Eye and the Economist the South China Morning Post, it graced Vogue and added grist to CNN and ABC news, it made it into the Irish Times, Der Spiegel in Germany and Repubblica in Italy as well, of course, as almost all the UK press. It was picked up by a host of other news and media outlets too. That's ‘a relationship to the world’ in practice. It might be too much to expect a book prize to break the internet but the Man Booker International Prize certainly put a dent in it.

Over the years, judges of both the Man Booker International Prize and the Man Booker Prize have tried to explain just how daunting a task is reading some one hundred and plenty submissions. Boyd Tonkin came up with a new image. The boxes of books resembled, he said, ‘a literary Stonehenge’.

Tonkin had another allusion up his sleeve when he referred to the recent rise in the popularity of translated fiction, sales of which in the UK have grown from 1.3m copies in 2001 to 2.5m in 2015 against a falling market overall. ‘Look at those figures from a fund manager's point of view,’ he noted, ‘and someone deserves a big fat bonus.’

The final thought should be Tonkin's too. He spoke briefly about how the old Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (which he ran for many years) and the previous Man Booker International Prize had merged for the prize's new annual incarnation. In this Shakespearean year he noted that things might have gone badly wrong – ‘Two households, both alike in dignity . . . that didn't end well.’ This time though, it did.

Han Kang and Deborah Smith