Appearing in Sunlight Press magazine, October 2019
The White Book
By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Random, $12, 160 pages, ISBN 9780525573067
If you want a novel with a clear, three-act narrative and an all’s-well conclusion, then this book by Korean writer Han Kang is not for you. In fact, it does not even look like a novel, written in short and seemingly unconnected snatches of prose. It is more like an extended meditation on life and death, on what might have been and on what once was. And that is enough. More than enough.
It is unknown how much of The White Book is autobiographical but it feels as if a good part of it is drawn from lived experience. Han has no lack of courage as a writer, in that she was willing to make such a departure from her previous book, The Vegetarian, which won the Booker International prize in 2016. That novel – actually three connected novellas – followed the increasing detachment of a woman from the real world when she announces she will no longer eat meat, and then eventually stops eating altogether. Significantly, we never really find out why: the three novellas are (effectively) centred on her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.
But we know that she is on a journey that leads to the most innermost part of the soul – something we find again in The White Book, and an idea that underlies much of the dynamism of the current Korean literary scene. The narrator of the book is in search of herself through an examination of the past, reflecting the way that South Korea is itself looking for a way forward (a theme, interestingly, often taken up by Han’s novelist father, Han Seung-won). It is a culture looking for the elusive balance between past and future, retaining what is most valuable without a trace of bleary-eyed nostalgia. The path has not yet been found but there is a sense that it will be, eventually.
Make no mistake: making one’s own fate is not an easy process, just as The White Book is not an easy read, despite its apparent brevity. It requires a certain level of engagement, and the reader has to be willing to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The story that weaves in and out of the book centres on the premature birth and death, after only two hours, of a baby that would have been Han’s older sister (eonni is the Korean term). Han imagines the heartrending scene of the mother holding the newborn close and begging: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.”
But the universe decided otherwise, and the tiny corpse is taken into the forest for burial. The white swaddling cloth became a funeral shroud. It is this image that leads Han to examine the white things that punctuate her life: rice, pills, salt, waves, a bird on the wing, an empty page where text should be. And snow, a connection that leads Han to reflect on “the city” where she lives for a while, a place where snow disguises and then reveals the past. It is Warsaw (although never identified by name), a city which, like Seoul, has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, a cycle in which Han sees an image of her departed, un-named eonni and herself.
For she eventually comes to realise that if the baby had lived then she, Han, would probably not have been born. It is a duality, a balance, that provides Han with a comfort, with a sense that things worked out as they were supposed to, as they were fated to. In the book’s final passage, Han bids her ethereal sibling farewell: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”
There is a toughness in Han, a sense of resilience and a willingness to peel back layers to find the core of being. This book could easily have become a mawkish plea for sympathy but the restrained, poetic writing provides a sense of moving from mourning to acceptance, a completed circle. It is a limited emotional pallet but the right one. It is no surprise to learn that the book took a long time to write and almost as long a time to translate.
The White Book is not for everyone but those who accept it on its own terms will find that it offers beauty, poignancy and resonance, a knowledge of what is lost and what is gained, and how one becomes the other.