The White Book
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Just over a third of the way through Moby-Dick, Ishmael suffers a peculiar narratorial anxiety. “But how can I hope to explain myself here,” he says, “and yet in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.” What Melville has Ishmael struggling to justify, to put into words here is his “ineffable” sense that “it was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” In lieu of such an explanation, Melville’s narrator resolves instead to make a list of white things. These he makes stand in, at great length, for various perceived virtues: natural, imperial, judicial, communal, moral, sexual. Yet “for all these accumulated associations,” Ishmael finally says, “with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime,” still there “lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than the redness which affrights in blood.” Whiteness, when “coupled with any object terrible in itself… heighten[s] that terror to the furthest bounds”—to the realm of “transcendent horror.” For Melville, in other words, behind the apparently containable uniformity of white there is an inherent and excessive instability. His implication is that the senses of order we have imposed upon the colour only very thinly veil annihilation and death: something beyond language. The list, ultimately, stages its own uselessness. It’s precisely this gap that the Korean novelist Han Kang probes and takes as her starting point in The White Book (2017).
Han’s book opens with its author-narrator sitting in an unfamiliar and unnamed European capital city (she wrote The White Book in Warsaw, but doesn’t explicitly say so) contemplating how to begin writing about white. Like Melville, her strategy for coming to terms with the vastness of the colour and its associations is first to list white objects. Han’s list of white things is made up both of the obvious (“salt,” “snow,” “ice”) and the unexpected (“laughing whitely,” “swaddling bands”) and is positioned as the first step in the task of “peering into the heart of these words.” Generalised white—whiteness—is abstract, detached and open to contamination by terms like “pure”; Han’s project is to make it specific. The reason for this enacted struggle, for the difficulty and the necessity of this archaeological approach to language, is gradually revealed. Alongside connotations of purity and innocence, white things carry with them an equal and uncanny sense of inertia, coldness, death. And this rich, troubling doubleness is exactly what’s called for when it comes to The White Book’s central topic: the death of Han’s older sister, hours after being born, when their mother was just twenty-two. Han is interested in working through what it means for her to have “been born and grown up in the place of that death.” What are we to do, the book asks, with the fact that we have survived?
Attempting to write about Han Kang’s work leaves one searching for words, reaching for paper on which to make lists of one’s own. Each of her three books that have been translated into English (all by Deborah Smith) have been newly and bravely bewildering, to the point where writing on them seems to flirt with redundancy. Han has taken risks in terms both of style and subject matter that are to my mind unparalleled by a writer so relatively new to the English-speaking world’s literary consciousness. How to write about a writer whose defining quality might be said precisely to be this sense of daring? More than anything else, what accounts for the radical changes in pitch across her novella The Vegetarian (winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2016), the novel Human Acts (2016) and now The White Book is that the object of Han’s writing always informs its form. Part of the reason I’ve been using the generic term “book,” is that I’m cautious about categorising The White Book as anything more specific than that. Is it lyrical colour theory? An artist’s book? Memoir? A prose poem? One thing it’s not is fiction in any conventional sense. Whatever we want to call Han’s text, it’s certainly psychological rather than intellectual, structured by the logic of emotion and association rather than a set of overarching arguments or aims.
The book is comprised of three major sections, all of which themselves consist of titled (but not numbered) subsections. The first, “I,” can be read as a series of false starts, enacting the writer’s need to find a system or schema by which to approach her task. Han considers the colour white through, among other things, atrocities in Korea and the ruins and reconstructions of the European city in the decades since the Second World War (there are shades of Sebald’s Austerlitz in these parts), before going on painfully to recount the moment of her sister’s death:
For God’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice, over and over like a mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes met those of her child, her lips twitched again. For God’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually enter into the flesh, sinking through to the bone. No more crying.
Stylistically, Han is relentless, unwavering in her commitment to a fragmentary but still lushly furnished prose. This is a book of muted and yet somehow numinous reflection, and its physical form—slender, delicate, strikingly white—only adds to this impression. She goes on to use explorations into white objects and materials to various ends, always in an appropriately mournful or melancholic tone. Small white pills become ways of measuring time—the contradiction of synchronous accumulation and loss that makes up a life: “If you could add up all the pills she’d ever taken, what would the total be? How many hours of pain has she lived through?…How many would there be? How many small white pills?” The precarity of living in a body—a fragile place of organs and fluids—is set with wonder against the white solidity of bone (“That human beings are also constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed…like a strange stroke of luck”). And most strikingly, objects become carriers of sensations and concepts, as when, of a perfect white pebble, she writes: “If silence could be condensed into the smallest, most solid object, this is how it would feel.” With such subtle elisions and collisions, Han gets close to what Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse describes as “touching” language as if it were a “skin,” running across its surface with “words instead of fingers, or fingers instead of words.”
“She,” the book’s second section, invents mostly tiny, insignificant moments in the unlived life of Han’s sister. She is described, for example, playing with a dog, or having an X-ray scan. That these are surrounded by so much white space engenders a particular poignancy. One of The White Book’s central, formally constructed analogies is between living and reading, and correspondingly between death and the blank page. (Of the book’s scant 161 numbered pages, around 60 are entirely blank and a further eight taken up by haunting, grainy photographs taken by Choi Jinhyuk that depict a performance of Han’s.) A person’s death, by nature, closes off their future’s apparent openness, which marks it as distinct from the lived experience of present temporality expressed in the act of reading. We are here, reading this book, which means that we, unlike the dead, have futures that still exist. The blank pages, I think, serve as a visual reminder that it’s this conceptual tension and interplay between completeness and incompleteness that’s at stake. Han goes on to consider the idea that had her sister survived, she would never have been born: “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.” Her existence is inexorably rooted in and tinted by this lack. Following the book’s final sentence are eleven blank (white) pages, whose inclusion has a subversive and disorienting effect. One continues, half-expecting a final utterance or epigraph, and is met only by blankness: a miniature construction of a future that once was possible no longer being so. Attempting to recreate what paradoxically never happened, Han presents her own life, lived in place of her sister’s, as being like the “faithful reconstruction” she describes “of a building that had been destroyed in a 1944 air raid, no longer used as a hospital but as an art gallery”—regenerated, renewed, and yet necessarily not the original thing. A replacement.
The third section—“All Whiteness”—begins by continuing in the conditional speculation of the previous section, playing out scenes that are all the more moving and difficult to read for their specificity. Han briefly depicts a shared childhood with her slightly stern but fiercely loyal and loving onni, imagining her helping with her maths homework, or their fleeting sibling arguments and reconciliations. Immediately following this is a description of her father taking his deceased new-born daughter into the mountains to bury her. The proximity is almost too much to bear. This section becomes her attempt to see the world “though the eyes” of her sister. But she means this differently to the way that expression is generally used to describe an exercise in empathy. Instead she conceives of this gesture as an act of service, an offering of her powers of attention and vision to her sister: “I wanted to show you clean things. Before brutality, sadness, despair, filth, pain, clean things that were only for you, clean things above all.” Admitting that “this didn’t come off as I intended,” Han weaves a kind of failure and fragmentation into the book’s texture.
The White Book could easily be read, inhaled almost, in a single sitting; but perhaps shouldn’t be. I say this because it’s so suggestive and associative that it becomes somewhat difficult to retain impressions of images from one subsection to the next, few of which are longer than a single page. You feel the need almost to remind yourself to breathe. What frequently makes the language so graceful and strange can also occasionally produce a sort of weightlessness. As here, when Han (or at least Smith’s translation) recalls T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Stale pain has not yet withered quite away, fresh pain has not yet burst into bloom. Days in which darkness and light are both imperfect swell with memories of the past. The only things which the mind cannot examine are memories of the future.
Like in Eliot’s poem the language and syntax taken on their own aren’t particularly foreboding, and the difficulty instead comes from a mysterious vagueness. This quality is hard to describe without resorting to paradox: overcomplicated simplicity, perhaps, or unadorned clarity made impossibly confusing. Being confused by the book’s manoeuvres, however, seems largely to be the intended effect. Boundaries blur and muddle, between periods of time and between subjects and objects. “I,” “she,” and “you,” refer at different points to Han/the narrator, her dead infant sister, their mother, and an imagined reader. These unstable, shifting pronouns permeate the book, but as you move through it you notice this perplexity ceasing to matter. This is a book that teaches you how to read it as you go. Han desires and describes movement, growth, the radical transmutation of things over time and beyond recognition. Early in the book she writes that she wants her writing to “transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound.” No wonder it feels loose and slippery; hold on too tightly, it insists, and you’ll lose your grasp.
Recently there has been some controversy (a “backlash,” to use one of the year’s most overused words) surrounding Smith’s translations of Han, which seems worth mentioning even if, not knowing a single word of Korean, I’m somewhat unqualified to offer a judgement. (Jiayang Fang’s New Yorker piece  does a far better job of comprehensively evaluating the issue than I could manage.) Charse Yun in the LA Times evocatively (and, you would have to imagine, hyperbolically) summarises  that the shift in register from the Korean to the English of The Vegetarian is essentially akin to “the plain, contemporary style of Raymond Carver being garnished with the elaborate diction of Charles Dickens.” Putting aside the issue of “good practice,” in some ways I’m tempted to say in this case that this doesn’t much matter. The number of readers who will ever compare both texts is tiny; if the result is engaging—and it demonstrably is—and a great writer is exposed to an international audience and to critical adoration, has anything meaningfully been lost or damaged? Han, who does speak English, has described the experience of being translated by Smith as uncommonly collaborative and illuminating. And more importantly than this Smith, in an essay  in Asymptote magazine, speaks to something fundamental about the specific experience of encountering Han’s prose. Anything she may have added in translation, she says, was “so powerfully evoked by the Korean that I sometimes find myself searching the original text in vain, convinced that they were in there somewhere, as vividly explicit as they are in my head.” Han’s images work their way into your psyche and your viscera in ways of which you are often barely aware. It’s an ambience or attitude, a mood not straightforwardly reducible to literal translation.
The White Book demands intimacy, asking that you listen closely. But it goes on to whisper about the point at which thinking and writing—like breath itself—eventually break down or stop working. Consciously or otherwise, it’s a critique of the form of the novel as one that has an emptiness at its core, that is unable accurately to show that what is written is simultaneously retrieved and erased. Unfolding away from what is said and known, Han’s book finds itself in its own withdrawal. Finally, all that is left is the hope that “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”
Matthew Johnston  completed an M.St in twentieth- and twenty-first century literature at Oxford in 2015. He currently lives and works in London.