Like most readers across the world, I first became aware of the South Korean writer Han Kang when she won the Man Booker International Prize two years ago for her phenomenal novel, The Vegetarian. It was recommended to me by a friend who bought it because of the award. Since then, I have read Han’s other works translated into English: the harrowing Human Acts and her latest, The White Book.
The Vegetarian tells the story of a woman who, after years of obedience to repressive societal norms and expectations, decides to defy them by first becoming a vegetarian and then insisting on her complete independence to become who she wants to be. She undergoes a haunting, intimate transformation, and in the end, demands her right to make the ultimate choice – how and whether to live or to die. It is an astounding portrayal of a woman’s emancipation and its possible consequences. The main character is South Korean, but the power of her story lies in the fact that most women can identify with her.
Human Acts, although it focuses on a specific historic event (a brutally supressed student uprising which took place in South Korea in 1980) is just as universal. Told from the perspective of a few people affected by the horrific violence, it narrates a story of suffering and survival. Its descriptions of the massacre made me think a lot about the brilliant English title (which is different to the original, translating directly as The Boy Is Coming) and how the words ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’ can be misleading.
In comparison to her previous novels, the recent The White Book concentrates on another intensely personal story which hints at grand historical narratives of death and destruction, as well as renewal. The book opens with a list of white things, ranging from swaddling bands to a shroud. The narrator writes them down in the hope that the process “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” At the centre of the story is loss. As she moves to a new home in a country she’s never visited before, the narrator recalls her older sister’s death: “My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.” She understands that she was born and grew up “in the place of that death.” Thinking about this fate, she wanders the streets of her new home which had been nearly wiped out of existence by Hitler’s military campaigns and rebuilt after the war. She realises that nothing in the city “existed for more than seventy years”. Everything had been “faithfully reconstructed” and stands on the ghostly remains of the past. When the narrator compares herself to the city, the personal becomes universal in a passage which gave me goose bumps when I first read it: “A person who had met the same fate as that city. Who had at one time died or been destroyed. Who had painstakingly rebuilt themselves on a foundation of fire-scoured ruins. Who was therefore something new. Who, some broken pediment having survived, has ended up bearing a strange pattern, the new distinct from the old.”
There is a story about a man who believed that the soul of his brother, who died very young in a Jewish ghetto, lived inside his own and communicated with him. The narrator contemplates whether her own sister might have “sought her out” in a similar way, but having been only an infant when she died, the little one had no knowledge of language: “That some vague sensation I had known as a child, some stirring of seemingly unprompted emotion, might, unbeknown to me, have been coming from her. For there are moments, lying in the darkened room, when the chill in the air is a palpable presence… Turned towards indecipherable sounds laden with love and anguish. Towards a pale blur and body heat. Perhaps I too have opened my eyes in the darkness, as she did, and gazed out.”
Han’s exquisite words look fragile and small on the pure white pages of The White Book. They are accompanied by black and white photographs and film stills by Choi Jinhyuk. Together they evoke feelings of pristine melancholy. I was particularly touched by the series of images of a white pebble. In one of the photographs, the pebble is covered in salt and lies in the palm of a hand. In another, it is being washed tenderly in a bowl of water. The third image is a close up of the rinsed pebble. The narrator considers the phrase “to pour salt on a wound” and makes us wonder what happens when wounds come in contact with the “white things” of her list, when the narrative itself is a cleansing process. There is pain and healing in reflection.
In interviews, Han confirms that the book is autobiographical; her parents lost a daughter, and Han was born soon after. We have an identical, uncanny story in our family: my father was born on the exact day of the first anniversary of his elder brother’s death. The fact always haunted my imagination, but that is by far not the only reason why Han’s confrontation with her parents’ grief and her own, the sense of loss and the miracle of revival in The White Book strike such a deep note in my own soul. Mourning is as much an individual as it is a communal process, and both aspects of it are of great importance to our perception of who we are as people and nations. Han’s narrator reminds us “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.”
It is seldom that a text reads so flawlessly that it brings tears to my eyes. I was moved by the perfect construction of the novel and the seeming ease with which it is executed. Han’s translator, Deborah Smith, has been accused of not being faithful enough to the originals, but she works closely with the author and has her approval. I cannot compare the two versions myself, but I delight in Smith’s interpretation of Han’s prose. And the contents of Han’s books feed my imagination and mind like few other contemporary authors. The White Book is sublime. I look forward to rereading it before the next title by this remarkable author is available in English.
The White Book
by Han Kang
Portobello Books, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times on 9 February 2018.