Standing at this border where land and water meet

Dear Han Kang,

The White Book, tr. Deborah Smith (2017. Original: 흰, 2016) is a meditation on colour. We start with a list of white things – snow, cloud, salt, rice, moon, hair, fog – and then you gradually dance around it, back and forth – as if it were an incantation that builds upon itself, filling in the blanks but also erasing the margins around them.

As we move through the list of white things, the elements appear and disappear, as if enveloped in a thick layer of fog: we have an unnamed narrator who wanders through the streets of a nameless European city which has been completely rebuilt after WWII (we are sure it is Warsaw, but this is never directly asserted). She spends her time mourning, trying to write, and recalling her mother’s first child, who died less than two hours after being 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. Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

We begin to have a sense that we are inside the narrator’s blank page: her writing process, which unfolds through an exploration of personal memories surrounding the white objects listed before. White represents purity and new beginnings, but, in the Asian tradition, it also denotes mourning and grief: slowly, the obliteration Warsaw went through during the war mirrors that of the author’s own loss for the death of her sister, as both act as an emblem of rebirth. Personal and historical memories juxtapose, until their borders get blurred and disappear.

The narrator’s dead sister is like a ghost, following her through the city, living through her: “I wanted to show you clean things”. Passing by a building that had been bombed during WWII and later rebuilt over the ruins that were still standing, the narrator muses that it resembles her sister’s presence in her life: the new building incorporates the old, and there is a faint line in-between.

The narrator begins to imagine her sister’s life, and this evolves to an attempt to see the world through the dead girl’s eyes – as if the narrator were living life for her, to the point where we have the impression that something has shifted; that we have lost track somewhere, and the book has started to be narrated by the dead sister herself: the she who is I who is she who is.

Scattered throughout the story, we have a bunch of black and white photographs, so that we feel we are lost somewhere between an essay, a poetry collection, a novel, a collage, and a memoir. The book falls somewhere between Bluets, by Maggie Nelson; The Pillow Book, by Sei Shōnagon; and The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald.

There are frequent references to things dissolving, melting into each other, disappearing; and to borders being crossed, blurred, passed through. It feels as if you were trying to paint with subtly different shades of white overlapping into each other: different shades of mourning, of loneliness, of silence. A sister’s face that disappears into a rice cake that, in turn, resembles the moon: images that end up melting into each other, like snow; meanings merging into one another, like in a blank page, yet to be written.

You guide us through the narrator’s struggle as through your own process of writing about it, in the hopes that it “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound”.

To throw oneself into a blank canvas; to replace one life with another; to cover oneself with writing as with a gauze or a palette of whites; in short, to give life through fiction – this seems a good definition of art. It feels very much as if the book were being written as we read it and slowly assemble its pieces – like a building over ruins, or a snowman melting.

Yours truly,

J.


Kazimir Malevich. “White on White”, 1918.


“Breath-cloud.
On cold mornings, that first white cloud of escaping breath is proof that we are living. Proof of our bodies’ warmth. Cold air rushes into dark lungs, soaks up the heat of our body and is exhaled as perceptible form, white flecked with grey. Our lives’ miraculous diffusion, out into the empty air.” ― Han Kang, The White Book

“Looking at herself in the mirror, she never forgot that death was hovering behind that face. Faint yet tenacious, like black writing bleeding through thin paper.” ― Han Kang, The White Book

“Sand
And she frequently forgot,
That her body (all our bodies) is a house of sand.
That it had shattered and is shattering still.
Slipping stubbornly through fingers.” ― Han Kang, The White Book

“Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is in fact illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.” ― Han Kang, The White Book

“I read an account by a man born in this city, in which he claimed to have lived for as long as he could remember with the soul of his elder brother, who had died aged six in the Jewish ghetto. The child’s voice came to him from time to time, he said, with neither form nor texture (…) It occurred to me that if I had been similarly visited myself, by my mother’s first child who had lived just two hours, I would have been utterly oblivious. Because the girl had never learned language at all. (…) For her, there would have been only a voice. Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die. Unintelligible words, the only words she was ever to hear.” ― Han Kang, The White Book

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. Though she had, by now, slipped from consciousness, the nipple in her mouth encouraged a soft swallowing, gradually growing stronger. Still with her eyes closed the whole time. Not knowing what boundary, she was now passing over. ― Han Kang, The White Book

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. 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 that I have not yet written. ― Han Kang, The White Book


About the book

  • Granta Books, 2017, 128 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 2016
  • Original title: 흰
  • Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize
  • My rating: 5 stars
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2 Comments

  1. Great review! Reading your thoughts, I was reminded of Bluets, but this sounds like a more interesting book. Having just finished The Vegetarian, I’m keen to read more of Kang’s work and night turn to this next.

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    Reply

    1. Thank you, Michael! The White Book is completely different from The Vegetarian, but both were powerful books for me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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