The White Book

Han Kang’s The White Book is very different to her two previous novels, The Vegetarian and Human Acts. It is, as she has said herself, “difficult to classify, a kind of essay cum prose poem.” Though it reaches 161 pages, many of these are blank, and others contain photographs and film stills by Choi Jinhyuk; the chapters are short, frequently less than a page long. All in all, it’s a very white book (even the paper it is printed on is of superior stock, and therefore whiter, than the average hardback).

The novel is also autobiographical, personal even, originating in time author spent in Warsaw, a city she begins to associate with her sister who died shortly after birth, as she has explained in interview:

“Almost 95% of it was destroyed in the Warsaw uprising. It was completely rebuilt, resurrected. I imagined the city as a metaphor for my older sister.”

In the novel she speaks of her as “a person who had met the same fate as the city”:

“And I think of her coming here instead of me. To this curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own.”

In the novel she resurrects her sister, moving from the ‘I’ of the first section to the ‘She’ of the second. In a sense, she also sees herself as her sister’s second life, realising that without her sister’s death she would not 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.”

Unsurprisingly, a sense of impermanence runs through the novel; the white images themselves suggest as much: snow, frost, fog, wave, even the moon itself. Her sister bears “the knowledge that everything she has clung to will fall away and vanish.” The chapter ‘Sand’ reflects:

“…her body (all our bodies) is a house of sand
That it had shattered and is shattering still.
Slipping stubbornly through fingers.”

Yet this is not the novel’s message. Warsaw is not a symbol of destruction but of reconstruction – “the remaining section of a ruined brick wall, which the bombing had not managed to destroy completely, since moved and incorporated into another structure.” Han has commented on the novel’s intention:

“This time I wanted to look at something in us that cannot be hurt or destroyed or harmed anyhow – and maybe we can call that something white.”

Her sister’s death becomes both a reminder of the fragility of life (“Looking at herself in the mirror, she never forgot that death was hovering behind that face”), but also of the difficulty of destroying something completely. This applies, of course, to the memory of her sister:

“There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time.”

But it also emphasises the continuation of life, specifically the way in which Han connects her sister’s death to her own life. This is rendered beautifully in the final chapter when Han speaks of seeing with her sister’s eyes:

“Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

Both The Vegetarian and Human Acts have their moments of strange beauty, but The White Book is eerily beautiful throughout. It is, as Han says at the beginning, a “transformative” book: her words transform everything within it. Even a handkerchief seen falling from a balcony becomes “like a soul tentatively sounding out a place it might alight.” Credit must go to translator Deborah Smith for her own act of transformation which demonstrates an exquisite ear for English. The White Book may be difficult to categorise, but it is easy to recognise as a deeply affecting meditation on death and life.

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7 Responses to “The White Book”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    This book appeals to me from what I’ve read so far. I was ambivalent toward the Vegetarian and did not read Human Acts.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Not a book to read on kindle then, given the importance of the paper itself…

  3. Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Just another WordPress.com weblog « The White Book […]

  4. Tony Says:

    I’ll be taking another look at this (my third read…) before too long – an excellent book 🙂

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