‘The White Book’ by Han Kang (Review)

The White Book
Han Kang, writer of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, has returned with a new book (translated by Deborah Smith), one very different from her first two works in English.  It’s a novel, even if it doesn’t always read like one, divided into three parts, each labelled in this English version with a number, an English title and the Korean original.  We meet a writer using a stay in a wintry foreign city to create a new text and carefully examine some open wounds.  Over a number of short sections, some a matter of lines long, the writer (as the title suggests) uses the idea of the colour white to… well, what exactly?

Death
When searching for a theme running throughout the work, it’s hard to look beyond death.  For such a short work, The White Book has the writer reflecting on a good number of people who have passed away, such as two friends from her university days, commemorated by the trees planted in their memory, and the uncle who took her out to sea, doomed to an early alcoholic death.  There are even veiled hints, when discussing the war dead of the city she’s visiting, at what happened in her own home town:

She thought of certain incidents in her own country’s history, the country she had left in order to come here, of the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.  Trying to imagine those souls being thus eulogised, in the very heart of the city streets, she realised that her country had never once done this properly.
p.131 (Portobello Books, 2017)

Ghosts
However, The White Book is really devoted to the writer’s dead elder sister, an elegy to the ‘Onni’ she never knew, granted just two hours of life before passing on.  When the writer/narrator hears a story of a man haunted by the screams of his dead brother, she wonders if her sister is watching over her, too, realising that she will never hear her screams as the poor baby never made a sound in her time on earth.  Her presence gradually becomes more prominent, with the second part told by an unknown ‘she’, later revealed to be the sister.

The more the writer contemplates the departed in her life, the more the book works to make them appear. The city abounds with fog, the white in which the dead may be present, hidden from view, and a later piece recalls the white clothes Koreans traditionally burn for the dead, so they can wear them, wherever they happen to be.

Things that are white
The White Book is a work replete with images, and there are many more examples of the importance of white. As well as painting her new front door white, the writer reflects on white objects from her past: a pebble she picked up, the perfect white stone; the first sight of sugar cubes, objects that leave her mesmerised; a handkerchief slowly falling to the ground from a washing line far above, elegant in its drift earthwards.  One of the constant whites of the book is the snow, as deadly as it is beautiful:

he who had shipwrecked himself in an alley, who
     had pushed himself up on cold-numbed hands,
thinking of what his life has been,
of the loneliness that waits for him at home,
thinking what is this, what the hell is this
damned dirty white

falling snow. (p.55)

White
Yet the importance of white extends to the book itself as a physical object. Many of the 160+pages are blank, framing the texts (some of them rather brief) in white.  The hard covers are similarly colourless, and the occasional photos interspersed throughout the book (as you may have guessed, they’re not in colour) add to the sombre tone.  In fact, there’s an overwhelming feeling of a world lacking in hues, with The White Book influencing the reader and pushing us to envision the scenes in black and white.

Language

Of course, none of this is of any use if the writing isn’t up to scratch, so it’s fortunate that Han’s latest work is a pleasure to read.  The text is usually clear and often simple, yet at the same time complex and concealing; there’s a poetic feel to the novel, and out of context, several of the shorter pieces could easily be taken for poems.  Smith has done an excellent job here of bringing Han’s words into English while keeping a slightly foreign essence, with hints of otherness preventing the reader from taking the translation for granted:

Person who begins only now to breathe, a first filling-up of the lungs.  Person who does not know who they are, where they are, what has just begun. (p.15)

There’s an interesting choice here in deciding not to translate this as ‘a person’ or ‘the person’, which would be more natural in English (those words are presumably absent in the Korean, a language without articles).  It lends the sentence an air of directly addressing the ‘person’ (the ill-fated sister), which given the way the novel develops, is quite apt.  Choices like these work with the writer’s own linguistic decisions (such as the Korean idiom ‘laughing whitely’) to make the reader slow down and reflect on the text.

Stories
There are many stories contained within The White Book, but is there a story to the novel itself?  Readers expecting a conventional novel may struggle, as it’s a book that requires the reader to trust in the writer, rewarding those who prize language and imagery over plot.  The shift from the first part, a first-person ‘narrative’, to the second part, a third-person section that forms the bulk of the work, may confuse some readers as the narrative thread is seemingly broken.  Only when we come to the close of the book do we see how and why the novel is structured in this way, realising how it all fits together.

Life
Above all, though, The White Book is the writer’s gift of life to her sister, her missing Onni, and an acknowledgement that the world could be very different:

This life needed only one of us to live it.  If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.
     My life means yours is impossible.
     Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces. (p.137)

Sadly, the dead cannot be brought back, but we can pay tribute to them.  In doing so here, Han has created a story of what might have been, an echo of a life, vivid without the need for colour.

Just white.

*****
The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Review copy courtesy of Portobello Books and the Australian distributor, Allen & Unwin

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