I’ve been writing this post on and off since February this year, ever since I finished reading 흰: The Elegy of Whiteness by Han Kang, and here we are, finally.
흰 (English title: The White Book) is the third book I’ve read by Han Kang, and the first I’ve read in the original Korean. A few years earlier, I had picked up Han’s Booker Prize-winning work 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian), mainly out of a curiosity for the novel’s British translator, Deborah Smith, who had only begun learning Korean seven years prior to the book’s publication.
Reading The Vegetarian was a milestone in my literary (?) Korean journey and education. Prior to it, I prided myself in being able to read Korean literature in the original language, when others had no choice but to rely on translations. What better way to show the world just how fluent I had become! At the time, I didn’t see translation as an art or science in and of itself, only as a means to an end. I’ll remember The Vegetarian as a novel that challenged all the ill-informed notions I’d had about foreign language, fluency, and literary translation.
I found The Vegetarian eerie and bizarre, but Human Acts shook me to the core. It was the first time I had read any literature about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising—nine harrowing days during which the South Korean martial government open fired and otherwise violently suppressed pro-democracy protesters, most of whom were university students.
I read this book during a time in my life when it was hard to feel anything, and, oh, did this book make me feel. The novel is a series of deep-punching vignettes about the atrocities that took place during the uprising and the shadow it continues to cast on Koreans 5, 10, 20+ years later, including Han herself. To date, Human Acts remains one of my favorite books, simply because of how much it hurt to read.
Soundlessly, and without a fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.Han Kang, Human Acts (tr. Deborah Smith)
The White Book is a series of interconnected meditations on the color white. It is a slim volume, just over 100 pages, interspersed with black-and-white photographs. Each “chapter” is rarely more than two pages long.
I thought, naively, that this would make reading the book in Korean simpler. Honestly? I should have known better; both The Vegetarian and Human Acts were short novels, but quite difficult to read, even in English.
Each moment is a leap forward 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.
–Han Kang, The White Book (tr. Deborah Smith)
When I read The White Book, I felt a kind of desolation. It wasn’t agony like Human Acts, but a quiet, persistent sadness. The color white often represents purity, light, innocence. In The White Book, we experience the color white in its other forms: the chill of a pale corpse, gauze covering a wound, snow and ash falling on a quiet city, bones in an x-ray, white-hot pain, ghosts, fog.
The phrase “하얗게 웃다” was one of Han’s white things that struck me as especially poignant. Laughing whitely, it is translated into English. I always equated this to “laughing innocently” or “laughing cheerfully/brightly.” But according to Han, there’s a fragility in the expression, a trembling feeling, as if you were smiling through tears.
하얗게 웃는다, 라는 표현은 (아마) 그녀의 모국어에만 있다. 아득하게, 쓸쓸하게, 부서지기 쉬운 개끗함으로 웃는 얼굴, 또는 그런 웃음.
너는 하얗게 웃었지.
가령 이렇게 쓰면 너는 조용히 견디며 웃으려 애썼던 어떤 사람이다.
그는 하얗게 웃었어.
이렇게 쓰면 (아마) 그는 자신 안의 무엇인가와 결별하려 애쓰는 어떤 사람이다.
Last month, I went to Seoul for a week by myself. I’m not great at sharing travel stories, but one thing I did do was visit a lot of bookstores because that’s what happens when I go anywhere by myself. On my last day, at Thanks Books in Hapjeong, I spotted a single copy of Han’s 2013 debut poetry collection.
Yeah, I bought it.
There’s no English-language novel that I’ve read so far that captures such intimate suffering as does the three novels I read by Han Kang. Her work is beautiful, but her writing can sometimes be inscrutable. I certainly felt the gaps in my knowledge of literary language (insofar as that can be generalized) while reading The White Book. If you’re studying Korean, and are starting to think about reading literature in Korean, I recommend reading Han’s works in translation first. Put it on your list, regardless.