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‘Now I will give you white things’: a review of Han Kang’s The White Book

By Oscar Farley.

Han Kang, The White Book, Portobello Books, 2017

Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection. Yet whatever its virtues in a place like a temple, where the dwelling is large, the inhabitants few, and everyone helps with the cleaning, in an ordinary household it is no easy task to keep it clean. […] here too it turns out to be more hygienic and efficient to install modern sanitary facilities—tile and a flush toilet—though at the price of destroying all affinity with “good taste” and the “beauties of nature.” That burst of light from those four white walls hardly puts one in a mood to relish Sōseki’s “physiological delight.” There is no denying the cleanliness; every nook and corner is pure white. Yet what need is there to remind us so forcefully of the issue of our own bodies. A beautiful woman, no matter how lovely her skin, would be considered indecent were she to show her bare buttocks or feet in the presence of others; and how very crude and tasteless to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination. The cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up the more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen. In such places the distinction between the clean and the unclean is best left obscure, shrouded in a dusky haze.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

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Han Kang has been lauded in South Korea since the ’90s but only in the last couple of years, via Deborah Smith’s translations for Portobello, has she exploded in the West. The Vegetarian (2007, trans. 2015), an unsettling parable of a woman wanting to turn herself into a plant, won the Man Booker International Prize; she was the first Korean even to be nominated. Her next translated book Human Acts (2013, trans. 2016) recounted the Gwangju uprising, when hundreds of citizens demonstrating against the new Chun Doohwan government were massacred. The White Book (2017) is her latest work, written while on a residency in Poland, and Portobello are promoting it as her ‘most successful’ ‘most experimental’ book, ‘a book like no other’. It is almost as if Kang, or Portobello, is deliberately alienating those who consider her solely Man Booker-esque award fodder.

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‘The whiteness and the gloss were simultaneously industrial and cold, like a presentiment of infinite and pristine mass-production, and at the same time as magical and entrancing as a vast expanse of freshly fallen snow. Warmth and cold, emotion and mechanistic impersonality, romanticism and industrialism: how could an album, a product, a design solution, a piece of packaging, an artwork, be at once so apparently ‘empty’, yet simultaneously so visceral, present, immediate and thrilling? […]

If the ‘whiteness’ of The White Album conflated a sense of cold industrialism with a richly glamorous, modern aesthetic, then in doing so it exerted phenomenal visual and conceptual tension – the perfect host, in terms of picture plane and surface, to receive the embossed imprint of the group’s name (tipped at a slight angle, as though to emphasise the mass-reproduction process) and a machine-stamped serial number running into the millions.’

Michael Bracewell, ‘This was the modern world – part one’

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For Han Kang, white is no ‘original’ surface, no canvas; it conceals. It is snow, cloud, white fur over pink skin, ‘a whiteout inside his head’, ‘feathers feathering down’. The beauty of the book as a physical object (like every Portobello edition) makes you constantly aware of its whiteness; the binding is white, the cover – and half of the pages are blank, untouched by the brief vignettes. Except that, in one of Kang’s own formulations, the text is ‘black writing bleeding through thin paper’. Her words, with effort and pain, reveal themselves from behind hundreds of white shells.

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‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’

Zora Neale Hurston, ‘How It Feels To Be Colored Me’

‘As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm.’

Richard Dyer, White

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It would be easy to compare this to contemporary Western ideas of ‘whiteness’ and originality, the volatile emergence of the ‘alt-right’, as if Kang’s treatment of the colour is coincidental; however, if her previous books prove anything, it’s her insight into the political consequences of actions, images, words. In The White Book’s most complex symbolic turn, the white butterflies which lead one around life’s bends (so that ‘nothing of that past could now be glimpsed were she to cast a quick glance over her shoulder’) are also the ‘invisible correlate’ of the souls of genocide victims, which flutter by ‘the wall where they were once gunned down […] with such a soundless motion’. Kang’s transformations are alchemical, and Smith’s translation renders them lucid and readable even at their most intricate.

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Of course, as everyone knows or claims to know, there is no neutral, absolutely transparent style. Sartre has shown, in his excellent review of The Stranger, how the celebrated “white style” of Camus’ novel—impersonal, expository, lucid, flat—is itself the vehicle of Meursault’s image of the world (as made up of absurd, fortuitous moments). What Roland Barthes calls “the zero degree of writing” is, precisely by being anti-metaphorical and dehumanized, as selective and artificial as any traditional style of writing. Nevertheless, the notion of a style-less, transparent art is one of the most tenacious fantasies of modern culture. Artists and critics pretend to believe that it is no more possible to get the artifice out of art than it is for a person to lose his personality. Yet the aspiration lingers—a permanent dissent from modern art, with its dizzying velocity of style changes.

Susan Sontag, ‘On Style’

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The White Book is less obviously political than Kang’s previously translated work. The narrator is living in Warsaw (though the city remains nameless), a city completely rebuilt after Nazi air raids and thus only seventy years old. She spends her time contemplating her mother’s first child, who was born prematurely and died less than two hours afterwards. The child’s death isn’t just a family’s tragedy but the event which allows for the narrator’s own existence; she explains, ‘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’. It defines her being so much, in fact, that the second part of the book is narrated from her sister’s perspective, as if she had lived.

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I.20       Something white behind a coloured transparent medium appears in the colour of the medium, something black appears black. According to this rule, black on a white background would have to be seen through a ‘white, transparent’ medium as through a colourless one.

I.23       “White water is inconceivable, etc.” That means we cannot describe (e.g. paint), how something white and clear would look, and that means: we don’t know what description, portrayal, these words demand of us.

II.14     Is the only difference here that the colours remain as saturated as before when a reddish light is cast on them, while they don’t with the whitish light? But we don’t speak of a ‘whitish light cast on things’ at all!

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour (trans. Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle)

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I enjoyed The Vegetarian and Human Acts not just for Kang’s political understanding but the intense characterisation and the quiet beauty she instils in everyday life at both its most banal and traumatic. The White Book, however, is emptied out; the narrator is the only character (so to speak), and constructed from fragmented images, not events. It is far closer to the essayistic poetry of Claudia Rankine or Maggie Nelson’s (similarly colour-themed) Bluets (2009). The poetic language occasionally shifts into actual poetry; a man she discovers asleep by a telegraph pole becomes ‘he who had shipwrecked himself in an alley, who / had pushed himself up on cold-numbed hands’. Portobello’s insistence that it is ‘fiction’ despite the overt experimentalism became increasingly suspect the further I read.

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For example, having described the faces of the murdered as being ‘expunged’ with white paint, when I later use the same word for the censoring of a play manuscript (fragments of whose performance—part Greek tragedy, part native-Korean shamanic exorcism—are also later described, in one of the novel’s most powerful sections), the intention is both to remind the reader that it is more than mere words which are being erased, and to trigger the kind of contrast between paint and ink, white and black, which hopefully echoes the book’s structural juxtapositions of contrasting tonalities.

Deborah Smith, ‘On Translating Human Acts by Han Kang’

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Here are some fragments from The White Book which I noted down:

At times my body feels like a prison, a solid, shifting island threading through the crowd.

For an hour she had held her eyes open, held them in the direction of our mother’s face, but her optic nerves never had time to awaken, and so that face had remained beyond her reach.

The skeleton in the Röntgen image, grey-white bones in a gunmetal sea.

After white clothes dissolve into the air this way, a spirit will wear them.

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It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface. The figurative belief follows from this mistake. If the painter were before a white surface, he — or she — could reproduce on it an external object functioning as a model. But such is not the case. The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it. He does not paint in order to reproduce on the canvas an object functioning as a model; he paints on images that are already there, in order to produce a canvas whose functioning will reverse the relations between model and copy.

Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (trans. Daniel W. Smith)

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At the opening of The White Book the narrator hopes that ‘the process of writing’ would ‘be transformative, would itself transform’ into another white covering, ointment and gauze. She asks, ‘Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?’ The White Book is less satisfying than Kang’s other work but perhaps that’s necessary; satisfaction implies completeness but she is striving against completeness. It is apparently her ‘most autobiographical’ book, and that’s how it felt: deeply personal. Kang is hardly hiding here but that doesn’t make her any less elusive.

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No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since

the world it opens is always a place

formerly

unsuspected. A

world lost

a world unsuspected

beckons to new places

and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory

of whiteness

William Carlos Williams, ‘The Descent’

 

Photo credit: Maria Iossifidou

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Farley
recently completed his MPhil at the University of Cambridge focusing on comic strips. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement and The Mays, and was recently long-listed for the Notting Hill Essay Prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 2nd, 2017.