Archive for the ‘Han Kang’ Category

The White Book

February 26, 2018

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.

Human Acts

March 1, 2016


human acts

The events at the centre of Han Kang’s latest novel Human Acts (translated once again by Deborah Smith)– the murder and torture of its citizens by a repressive regime – are so ubiquitous that the first question for a writer is how to make the reader see them as new and other, to provoke both reaction and reflection. That Han Kang’s talent lies precisely in making the world look different, or making us look differently at the world, is obvious from her first novel The Vegetarian, though here the task is somehow greater, more demanding. The events of 1980 in Gwangju are clearly an important, if obscured, part of Korean history, and well within living memory. From its title onwards, however, Human Acts more than meets that challenge.

In dealing with complex historical events, it may seem a mistake for the author to plunge us straight into the narrative, but Han is successful because she is primarily concerned with character, which she has the ability to create through voice within a page or two. (In fact, the events of 1980 will only be revealed in part, and in parts, because Han’s focus from the start is on the human element rather than historical documentation, which is not to say it isn’t a powerful testimony to the victims). The first voice we meet is second person, identifying us with Dong-ho, a high school student who came to look for the body of a friend, Jeong-dae, after the initial confrontation between protestors and soldiers, and has stayed “just lending a hand with a couple of things” where the corpses of are being kept. Also there are two young women, Eun-sook and Seon-ju: the victims of this massacre will be little more than children.

Jeong-dae narrates the second section, but his voice is that of the dead:

“The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.”

Though these narratives originate from 1980, our next chapter is dated 1985, indicating that we will move through time to the present with an epilogue, focusing on Han herself, set in 2013. These chapters will reveal more detail of what occurred in 1980, but also emphasise that Han is concerned as much with the after effects as with the events of those few days. In 1985 Eun-sook is an editor, and her chapter, as well as providing evidence of continued repression, asks whether anything can be the same again, both for the victims and for the country. We see this when, shortly after the uprising, she phones the Provincial Office complaints department:

“I’ve just seen water coming out of the fountain and I don’t think it should be allowed… What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal.”

The chapter itself tells of seven slaps that Eun-sook has suffered when being questioned about the whereabouts of the translator of a banned book, structured around “the process of forgetting the seven slaps.” Forgetting is something that Eun-sook has found difficult, despite her mother’s advice:

“Just forget about what happened, then you can go off to university like everyone else, earn a living, meet nice people…and live, just live.”

Instead Eun-sook feels:

“After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life becomes a funeral”

in the words of the poem which ends the chapter.

The non-fiction book which Eun-sook wishes to publish tackles issues at the heart of Han’s novel:

“Certain crowds do not blench at the prospect of looting, murder and rape, while on the other hand, others display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty achieving as individuals.”

The novel displays both the barbarism and cruelty of the soldiers and the self-sacrifice of the protestors. Which is human? “Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel?” we are asked at one point. Yet in the same chapter, in prison, undergoing regular torture, when two prisoners fight over the food they must share, another pushes between them: “D-don’t do that.” In acting this way they become less than human, exactly what their torturers want:

“We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.”

This contrasts later with labour activist Seong-hee’s favourite saying, “We are noble,” as we are repeatedly made to consider what it does, in fact, mean to be human.

Human Acts, if anything, is an even better novel than The Vegetarian, as Han turns her eye from the person to the people. It’s an astonishing high-wire performance between horror and hope, asking uncomfortable questions about who we really are, sure to become a classic of its kind.

The Vegetarian

December 14, 2015


Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (beautifully rendered in English by Deborah Smith) was one of the first, if not the first, novel of 2015 to be greeted with excited praise, something evident in the ecstatic anticipation in evidence prior to the publication of Human Acts, her second novel to appear in English, in just a few weeks. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian, and of the cataclysmic effect this has on her family, her marriage, and her life. The novel is told in three parts, by three different narrators – none of them Yeong-hye. This would be surprising were it not for the fact that it becomes increasingly evident that she is not listened to, or understood, by those around her, and that her voicelessness is a facet of her slow vanishing from the narrative.

The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’, is told from the point of view of her husband, Cheong, who immediately sums up his wife as “completely unremarkable in every way.” His decision to marry her comes some way short of true love:

“However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.”

Marrying Yeong-hye is predicated on the impossibility of her ever shocking or surprising him – he praises her “passive personality” – and therefore how much more shocked and surprised he is when she declares that she will no longer eat meat as a result of as dream she has had. It becomes clear that her vegetarianism is not for moral or health reasons, but because she has developed a revulsion to meat; she refuses to sleep with her husband because of “the meat smell. Your body smells of meat.” Eventually, Cheong contacts Yeong-hye’s family and the first section climaxes in a violent scene when her father attempts to force her to eat meat.

Between each section, time passes, and by the time ‘Mongolian Mark’ begins, Cheong has left his wife. The second story is told in the third person but from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law who develops an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye centred around her Mongolian mark – a birth mark which, as he explains, “appeared on the buttocks or backs of children only, always fading away completely before adulthood.” This unconsciously reveals what attracts him to Yeong-Hye, her childlike helplessness, exacerbated by her now emaciated body. He develops a plan to video her painted with flowers (less strange than it sounds as he is, apparently, a video artist). Does this suggest he understands her (she longs to become one with nature in some way) or is it an example of him objectifying her? When he has himself similarly painted so that she will sleep with him, you can’t help but feel it’s more desire than art, and the coupling which follows is ambiguous to say the least.

By the third part, ‘Flaming Trees’, narrated by her sister, Yeong-hye is hospitalised, diagnosed with anorexia. In-hye’s marriage has also ended, having finally fallen apart on the night she found her husband and her sister together. By this point, Yeong-hye has convinced herself she no longer needs food; she mentions a dream in which she is a tree:

“I was standing on my head…leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands…so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom form my crotch so I spread my legs.”

The clinic are going to attempt to feed her through a tube one last time in a scene that can only remind us of her father forcing meat into her mouth.

The Vegetarian can, of course, be read as an account of mental illness, and the damage it can cause not only to the victim but to the family. Yeong-hye’s story also seems to be one of a woman who is not listened to, surrounded by others who think they know better. You might also argue, the sanity of the other characters is called into question: her husband, rigid and unfeeling; her father’s violent rage; her brother-in-law’s obsessive lust and rush towards death when discovered; even her sister, the most sympathetic, who feels “her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance.” Fascinating, strange, the novel is not unlike a body painted with flowers, its naked truth glittering with images.