The White Book
by Han Kang (2016)
translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2017)
Portobello Books (2017)
161 pp

For God’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead.

They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually enter into the flesh, sinking through to the bone.

No more crying.

Chapter 5 of Han Kang’s quite brilliant Human Acts, as per Deborah Smith’s English translation, concludes with the words:

Don’t die.

Just don’t die.

She explained at the time:

through writing the life of torture survivor Lim Seon-ju, I again experienced things which it seems that, as a woman like her, I did not want to have to bear. And so, at first this chapter had the tone of observing Seon-ju from more of a distance, one night in August 2002. I then realised that this was because I had been trying to distance myself from her, and so I rewrote the whole chapter from the beginning. I struggled to write precisely her feeling of being unable to press the button of the dictaphone. And I wrote the final sentence of the chapter, ‘please don’t die’, in Seon-ju’s voice. Don’t die; that was something I wanted to say to her, to all the living, to us.

Later Han Kang realized that these words were also sub-consciously influenced by a story her mother had told her, one she retells here:

My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.

I was told that she was a girl, with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake. Though she was very small, two months premature, her features were clearly defined. I can never forget, my mother told me, the moment she opened her two black eyes and turned them towards my face.

At the time, my parents were living in an isolated house, in the countryside near the primary school where my father taught. My mother’s due date was still far off, so she was completely unprepared when, one morning, her waters broke. There was no one around. The village’s sole telephone was in a tiny shop by the bus stop – twenty minutes away. My father wouldn’t be back from work for another six hours.

It was early winter, the first frost of the year. My twenty-two-year-old mother crawled into the kitchen and boiled some water to sterilise a pair of scissors. Fumbling in her sewing box, she found some white cloth that would do for a newborn’s gown.

The White Book is her beautifully poignant tribute to her eonni, the elder sister she never had, the little girl with the face of a “crescent-moon rice cake,” with her two black eyes, dressed in the white gown that was used to swaddle her and later, after her two brief hours of life, served as her funeral shroud.

‘White as a moon-shaped rice cake’ never made much sense until, at six, I was old enough to help out with making the rice cakes for Chuseok, forming the dough into small crescent moons. Before being steamed, those bright white shapes of rice dough are a thing so lovely they do not seem of this world. Only afterwards, dished up on a plate with a pine-needle garnish, did they become disappointingly matter-of-fact. Glistening with roasted sesame oil, their colour and texture transformed by heat and steam, they were tasty, of course, but utterly unlike their former loveliness.

So when my mother said ‘white as rice cake’, I realised, she meant a rice cake before it is steamed. A face as startlingly pristine as that. These thoughts made my chest grow tight, as though compressed with an iron weight.

Han Kang started the book on an extended visit to Warsaw (as an aside, she finished it in my home county of Norfolk), although Warsaw is referred to only as “the city” in the book. Another key inspiration was aerial footage she saw of the city, footage shot in Spring 1945 by an American plane:

The city seen from far above appeared as though mantled with snow. A grey-white sheet of snow or ice on which a light dusting of soot had settled, sullying it with dappled stains.

But as the plane gets low, the snow is revealed as the ashes of the burnt and almost entirely destroyed city. Visiting Warsaw some 70 years later, she realizes:

The fortresses of the old quarter, the splending palace, the lakeside villa on the outskirts where royalty once summered — all are fakes. They are all new things, painstakingly reconstructed based on photographs, pictures, maps. Where a pillar or perhaps the lowest part of a wall happens to have survived, it has been incorporated into the new structure. The boundaries which separate old from new, the seams bearing witness to destruction, lie conspicuously exposed.

It was on that day, as I walked through the park, that she first came into my mind.

A person who has met the same fate as that city.

The White Book was published in Korean as “hwin,” one of two Korean words for white, the other being “hayan.” As the author explained in an interview:

The Korean title of this book is the single-syllable hwin. If hayan indicates the white as an ordinary colour, in hwin there might be a certain sadness, the colour of fate. The white of this book’s title is a fundamental colour passing from a baby’s swaddling cloths to a shroud, through the white of salt and snow and frost and waves, the wings of a living butterfly and the wings of the same creature, grown transparent in death.

The White Book is both a fictional novel and, in the author’s words, “could be read as narrative poem in 65 fragments” each focused around something that is white: a newborn’s gown, salt, snow, ice, blank paper, fog (“that vast, soundless undulation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness”), etc.

The first section, “I,” tells, all in this same format of brief prose poems, how the author came to write the book, but in the longest and second section, “her,” she writes as if her sister had lived and was in the city instead of her: “As I have imagined her, she walks this city’s streets.” At a reading I attended, the author explained how she wanted to “lend her body” to the characters in Human Acts and to “lend her life” to her sister here.

And in the last section, “All Whiteness,” the narration return to the first person, as she addresses her sister:

I wanted to show you clean things. Before brutality, sadness, despair, filth, pain, clean things that were only for you, clean things above all. But it didn’t come off like that. Again and again I peered into your eyes, as though searching for form in a deep, black mirror.

And there is also a nod to the events described in Human Acts when, seeing wreaths laid in the city she is visiting, the narrator “thought of certain instances in her own country’s history, the country that she had left to come here, of the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.”

As for the translation, there has been some controversy around Deborah Smith’s work, on The Vegetarian in particular. Frankly, some of the commentary has missed the point entirely, as what ultimately matters is the end result, the work that is presented to the English reader, and there only two things need be said:

1) The author works with and has a very close relationship with her translator, and is clearly delighted with the result. (Although see here for her take in the Korean press. She clearly was a little disappointed with the factual mistakes in The Vegetarian and much happier with the translations of the later books, plus she acknowledges herself that translation does mean the need to produce a different work.)

2) As a reader, too, the resulting book is truly wonderful.

Smith does have to wrestle with some untranslatable puns. For example, in the book the Korean riddle “What is a dog that’s a dog but doesn’t bark” has the answer “fog” (which at least rhymes in English), but in the original  Korean the riddle works because it plays with the similarity between the characters for “fog” and “not dog.” There are also the Korean near homonyms for elder sister and front teeth. If I had to make one small point, there is a passage written in the thirrd person where the narrator suddenly refers to “our mother”; the Korean collective word is much more natural here but rather jars in English.

The English edition is also illustrated with some beautiful photos of performance art Han Kang did around the time of the Korean book’s launch, like making a small baby dress from gauze, making for a truly beautiful, powerful, and moving work of art.

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