Reckoning with the Fragilities of Life

In the ambit of Korean literature, Han Kang (한강) is a household name. The daughter of novelist Han Seung-won, her literary career began with poetry; in 1993, she published five poems in the winter issue of the quarterly magazine Literature and Society. Two years later, in 1995, she published her first short story collection titled 여수의 사랑 (A Love of Yeosu). There was no way up for Han. For nearly three decades, she created for herself a formidable literary ensemble that is comprised of works from a vast genre, including novels, essays, short stories, and poems. Her works have also won several awards in her home country. Among these awards are the 25th Korean Novel Award for her novella Baby Buddha in 1999, the 2005 Yi-Sang Literary Award for Mongolian Mark, the 2010 Dong-ni Literary Award for Breath Fighting (2010), and the 2014 Manhae Literary Award.

But while she has been renowned among South Korean literary pundits and literary circles, Han was virtually unheard of in the anglophone world. This changed when her 2007 novel 채식주의자 (Chaeshikju Uija) was translated into English as The Vegetarian by Deborah Smith and released in 2016. The Vegetarian was warmly and critically received by the global audience, even earning Han and Smith the prestigious and recently revamped International Booker Prize for the same year. This made Han the first Korean writer to achieve the feat and opened more doors and opportunities for her oeuvre to be made available to the rest of the world, even beyond the anglophone world. Her 2014 novel, 소년이 온다 (Soneyoni Onda), was next to be released in English as Human Acts in 2017, to the same warm reception that The Vegetarian received.

The latest of her works to be translated into English was (Huin) which literally translates to “white”, hence, the English-translated version’s title, The White Book. Originally published in 2016, The White Book introduced the readers to an anonymous narrator. The narrator opened, “In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was make a list”. The list she came up with consists of fifteen objects, enumerated in the opening pages of the story. Some of these items were typical, objects we often encounter every day, such as rice and hair. There were also objects associated with nature, particularly winter, such as snow and fogs. There were also random items such as blank paper, a baby’s gown, salt, and breast milk. These objects were as varied as they were seemingly whimsical. What do these objects pertain to? What did they represent? It didn’t take long before what these objects represented were unveiled.

“Each moment is a leap forward from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.”

~ Han Kang, The White Book

The anonymous narrator, we eventually learn, was a South Korean writer who was temporarily staying in a European city blanketed by snow. Far from the comforts of home and a familiar environment, she found herself increasingly preoccupied with the thoughts of her older sister. However, she was never able to meet her older sister. Her “unnie” (the Korean term used by a younger sister to address her older sister) passed away within two hours of her birth in a remote village. To reckon with her own memories and grapple with the death, the narrator listed objects associated with the color white which she used as vessels to convey her own reflections. What ensued was a deeply moving and ruminative literary piece, with its core being reflections on grief, death, and loss.

On the surface, her unnie’s premature death may have not directly impacted the narrator’s life. But death has its curious way of trickling into one’s memory. It leaves, at times, bitter aftertastes, if not beautiful memories. Despite the passage of time, these losses loom large in the present. Those who have departed never truly leave us. The passage of time does not ease the pain nor does it make the memories feel or seem lighter. The departed will keep on defining us and shaping our lives, in ways we don’t realize. Death affects the living, and some endeavor to understand how these losses define them in the present. It is for this same reason that death, loss, and grief have become universally explored subjects in the ambit of literature.

It was at this juncture that the narrator found herself at the crossroads. While it was never explicitly mentioned, one can sense that the narrator was herself escaping from something. In moving, albeit temporarily, from South Korea to Europe, it was as if she was trying to create a distance between herself and what was haunting her in order for her to understand it. There was a sense of guilt, of foreboding that gripped her because she get to live but one, unfortunately, was not. Eventually, she realized that she had to grapple with her own feelings about the tragic and untimely death. At one point, the unnamed narrator ruminated: “I felt that yes, I needed to write this book and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.”

In Han’s latest novel, she endeavored not only to make sense of the death but also to give value to the short life of the narrator’s sister. Also embedded into the story was the perspective of the twenty-to-year-old mother who was forced to give birth on her own. Han vividly painted the agonies beset by the realization of an untimely death: “Now and then her mother would be struck by a sense of foreboding and give a corner of the quilt a tug, but the baby’s eyes opened only briefly, grew dim and then slid shut. At some point, even that scant response was no longer forthcoming. And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing.”

“There is none of us whom life regards with any partiality. Sleet falls as she walks these streets, holding this knowledge inside her. Sleet that leaves cheeks and eyebrows heavy with moisture. Everything passes. She bears this remembrance – the knowledge that everything she has clung to will fall away from her and vanish – through the streets where the sleet is falling, that is neither rain nor snow, neither ice nor water, that dampens her eyebrows and streams from her forehead whether she stands still or hurries on, closes her eyes or opens them”

~ Han Kang, The White Book

Han then slowly builds up the narrative around the fifteen objects that the narrator listed. These objects take on a different meaning as they slowly turned into vessels for the narrator’s personal ritual of mourning. In varying degrees, each object represented sorrow and also the pains of remembrance. It was through these white and seemingly ordinary objects that she tried to come to terms with her own feelings and her understanding of death and sorrow. These reflections also dig deep into the meaning of the human spirit. We read of its mysteries, and also of its impermanence. By paring down the narrative through simple objects, the narrator was effectively delving into the beauty of the mundane, and, on a broader stroke, of the paradox of life and death.

One of the novel’s finest facets was its structure and execution. In each of her previously English-translated novels The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han demonstrated her capabilities for creating robust and complex plots. However, in The White Book, she deviated from the literary norm; rather than providing a robust plot, she provided her readers with a plotless literary work. In the place of a solid storyline, Han provided a series of reflections that resonated with the readers. Her work also transcended the archetypes of storytelling. Veering off from traditional storytelling structures, Han gave the readers a fragmented narrative. The splinters of these reflective passages and the book’s preoccupation with the color white were, nevertheless, tightly woven together by Han’s beautiful and lyrical prose. She was able to produce a cohesive, meditative, and profound literary piece.

But it was not only the paradigms of established literary structures that the narrative transcended. While her other works can be pigeonholed into a particular genre, The White Book was a work that refused to align with any clear literary definitions. In the book’s unconventional storytelling, Han has capably demonstrated how her writing moves fluidly across a spectrum of genres. The beauty of the prose was engrossing and reminiscent of Han’s roots in poetry. The most mundane of objects were transformed by her writing: “A single handkerchief drifted down, slowest of all, finally to the ground. Like a bird with its wings half furled. Like a soul tentatively sounding out a place it might alight.”

Han wrote the book while on a writer’s residency in Warsaw, hence, the snow-blanketed city and the vivid allusions to its environment. As a color, white occupies a tremendous space in Korean culture. For ancient Koreans, white represented a starting point, thus, white is the most basic symbol. In the contemporary, it represents purity, cleanliness, and humility. It also implies devotion to all things natural, pure, and basic. It is a depiction of a clean state of mind with no marks of greed. While the book grappled with a bleak but profound subject, what resonated was its level of intimacy. However, it was no mere literary vessel utilized to provide a discourse on profound subjects. With the intimate and haunting voice that permeated The White Book, one can surmise that the book was riddled with elements from the writer’s own life.

“At times my body feels like a prison, a solid, shifting island threading through the crowd. A sealed chamber carrying all the memories of the life I have lived and the mother tongue from which they are inseparable. The more stubborn the isolation, the more vivid these unlooked-for fragments, the more oppressive their weight. So that is seems the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior.”

~ Han Kang, The White Book

Born third in her family, Han was the first one to survive beyond a few hours. Apart from her unnie whose death was the focus of the book and of her reflections, she briefly referred to an older brother who also succumbed to premature death. This makes the narrative assume a different shape. The realization that her sister’s short life will always be an integral part of her life and her story reverberated all throughout. In writing The White Book, Han was sharing parts of herself to her readers. The book’s fragmented structure reflected her mindset, with the story’s different pieces eventually becoming whole, parts of a lush tapestry.

Shortlisted for the 2018 International Booker Prize, The White Book is a testament to Han Kang’s capabilities as a writer and the depth of her prose. It was parts-cleansing and parts-healing. Her elegant prose and brief musings converged for an immersive reading journey. In the process, Han was making them part of her journey to healing and her own search for the meanings of life. She was making them ponder on the meaning of mortality. Indeed, the narrative was at its most captivating when the readers take part in the healing process.

The White Book, however, was no ordinary book. On the surface, it masqueraded as a collection of poetic musings on a string of white objects but it goes beyond as it was through these objects that Han explored profound subjects such as human spirit loss, and grief. Through the process of understanding the dichotomies of death and life, she provided an intimate glimpse into a seminal part of her life. A deviation from the typical story, The White Book was a book that makes the reader ponder on the fragilities and the innate beauty of life. The White Book, then, is simultaneously a memoir, a meditative piece, and a poetic musing. By tackling the mysteries, beauty, and fragility of her own, and, by extension, our own mortality, the book provided a cathartic experience.

“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way.”

~ Han Kang, The White Book
Rating

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

My first encounter with South Korean writer Han Kang was with her International Booker Prize-winning work, The Vegetarian. I didn’t like it. At first. The passage of time and the realization of the subjects it grappled with made me appreciate it. I also liked Human Acts, perhaps more than her first work to be translated into English. The dichotomies between these two works were stark but it was also this sea of differences that made me appreciate them on an individual level. When I learned about Han’s latest work translated into English, The White Book, I was looking forward to it. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book and made it part of my 2022 Asian Literature Month. Just as expected, Han gave me yet another memorable book. It was also another deviation from her previous works. In grappling with death, loss, and sorrow, she gave an intimate peek into the vastness and the depth of her oeuvre; she has other works awaiting translation. The White Book could not be any more different from her other works, from the structure to the subjects it dealt with. The beauty of the writing, which showed vestiges of Han’s poetry, provided for a more intimate reading experience. Hopefully, Han’s other works will be translated into English.

Book Specs

Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Publisher: Granta
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 161
Genre: Literary, Philosophical

Synopsis

From the Man Booker International Prize-winning author of The Vegetarian comes a book like no other.

The White Book is a meditation on colour, beginning with a simple list of white things. It is a book about mourning, rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is a stunning investigation of the fragility, beauty, and strangeness of life.

About the Author

To learn more about Han Kang, please click here.