Han Kang’s The White Book
Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
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 not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.
Every piece of writing is a performance of some sort, the execution of a task intended for public consumption. But Han Kang’s The White Book feels performative in a way that few books do. The book begins with a list of things that are white. “With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative.” Over the course of the book, numerous small, modest performances—breathing, observing, walking, touching—lead Han Kang to powerful memories, flights of imagination, and life-changing realizations.
The book has three sections, each containing one or two dozen brief texts that are rarely longer than a page or two. The titles of each of these brief texts are sometimes suggestive—like “Certain objects in the darkness” or “To the stillness” or they simply consist of a single word, like “Snowflakes.” Each text is surrounded by generous amounts of thick, white paper. These are all signs that the words on the pages of The White Book are to be carefully weighed, pondered, reread.
Written while spending a winter in Warsaw, Poland, a city that was almost completely destroyed in 1944, The White Book begins with the process of rebuilding. Han Kang kept noticing how bits of original architecture that had survived the war “were incorporated into the new structure.” And “it was on that day, as I walked through the park, that she first came into my mind.” She was Han Kang’s older sister, her onni, who died two hours after being born. What Han Kang realized was that she probably owes her own existence to this sister’s death. If this child had not died and if her mother had not suffered a miscarriage with the next child, then Han Kang and her brother might likely never have been born. “This life needed only one of us to live it.”
With this newly formulated debt or tinge of guilt in mind, Han Kang begins to imagine her sister. She sees her walking the snowy streets of Warsaw, gazing at the moon, pacing in her room. She. Han Kang leaves the referent of pronoun uncertain. Han Kang and the soul of her older sister are to be seen as coexisting. In the middle of the book’s three sections, Han Kang shifts to the third person, and we can read the “she” of this narrative as either herself, her sister, or both. There are many borders in The White Book—borders between land and sea, fog and no-fog, past and present, light and darkness, life and death. But the most important border is that between Han Kang and her older sister. Han Kang sees all of these borders as permeable boundaries which allow each side to flow into the other side.
There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When that pure cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of. Such is the strange comfort she receives when sleep borders wakefulness when that crisp cotton bedsheet brushes her skin.
In the final section, Han Kang returns to first person narration and reports back after sharing moments with the spirit of her sister. ” I saw differently when I looked with your eyes. I walked differently when I walked with your body.” This is the transformation alluded to in the opening pages. Before her brother’s wedding, Han Kang participates in ceremony in which special cotton clothes are burned so that departed spirits might wear them. “Do we really believe that?,” she asks. And then she seems to answer her own question by inviting the spirit of her older sister “to slip on those clothes that the fire has borne to you, like slipping on a pair of wings.” And when the book ends, the connection between Han Kang and her sister becomes complete. “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”
In The White Book, the text and the photographs are on the same page, so to speak, more so than in most other photo-embedded texts. They both have the same oracular, ritual tone, and I never felt I had to shift into a different cognitive gear as I moved from text to photograph and back again. Why should this be? Normally, when we read we analyze texts and images in different ways, as if they come from different cultures or represent different languages. Some writers, like W.G. Sebald, take advantage of this cognitive dissonance to force the reader into making on-the-fly image/text connections.
In The White Book, the seven black-and-white images, plus the one on the cover, each show a woman in a room that appears to be completely white. These haunting images are from a performance that Han Kang did, which was filmed by Choi Jin-hyuk and exhibited at a gallery space in Seoul after the publication of the Korean edition of The White Book (흰 Hŭin or The Elegy of Whiteness). In several images she is holding objects that are white or presenting them to the camera for the reader to view. In others, we see only her silhouetted shape bending or in movement. (Ironically, these photographs of whiteness are mostly gray, but we get the idea.) Perhaps the images and text seem so integrated because Choi Jin-hyuk’s photographs reiterate what we read in the text and do so at the same heightened aesthetic level of Han Kang’s text.
Several color stills from Choi Jin-hyuk’s film (“For Her” in English) can be seen on pages 13-15 of this issue of Korean Literature Now. And here is Han Kang talking during the exhibition:
Curiously, the original Korean edition used different images by a different photographer, Cha Mi-hye, whose color photographs depicted “sparse frames of snowfields, water and sunlight,” according to the Korean Herald.
Han said she felt Cha’s pieces would pair well with her new novel, as both works deal with the “the point of encounter between life and death.”
“It’s a book that proceeds like a conversation between text and image,” said Han, who professed to be an art aficionado. “I learned a lot through this process…Until now, I didn’t think I would be able to say something through a medium other than language,” said Han.
But, on finishing the performance and seeing the photographs and footage by Choi Jin-hyuk, Han Kang asked Portobello Books to use his images instead. It was a wise choice.