This review first appeared in August 2018 on the American Literary Translators Association blog.
The White Book
by Han Kang
translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 2018
One weekend last Women in Translation Month, I found myself hypnotized by The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. The scene was almost too idyllic: it was a rainy night, and surprisingly cool for Belgrade—appropriately, Serbian for the white city—in August. The White Book is one that you read when it is cold out—or when you want to feel a chill in your bones, when you want to be reminded of the whiteness within your body, of all that will eventually be left.
The concept of the book is simple: it is a meditation on things white. Snow, swaddling bands, rice—but also shrouds, bones. The text illuminates the line of the fragility between life and death, and how one can mean the other for yourself, for someone you know, or someone you never got to know. Here, the author meditates on the deaths of the siblings who came before her and died a few hours after birth, knowing that had they lived, she would never 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.
My life means yours is impossible.
Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.
In reading this text, one cannot help but ponder the black and white—this book, in being The White Book, tosses that black, that ether, to the reader to consider for herself—and the knowledge that real life is fuzzy. But sometimes it is also ultimate, as here. And that finality looks at itself, a dark mirror.
That human beings are constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck.
This meditation on fragility, on luck, is poignant: Who doesn’t think about all of the events that had to fall into place in order for us to simply exist? Like the “sharp implement” used to carve the number into the door of the apartment the narrator lives in, the text drives this condition into the reader’s eyes and mind.
One cannot meditate on the text without drawing attention to the language, rendered—would it be a pun to say incandescently?—into English from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Fog obscuring the world as it moves from night to day is described with “each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness”; waves are literally highlighted as “each wave becomes dazzlingly white at the moment of its shattering.” The text is itself shattering; it reads as poetry boiled overnight in a pot and served up as prose.
This book is preoccupied with transformation. Skin into bones, swaddling bands into shrouds, snow into waves, life into death. This preoccupation is appropriate, as the book, being a translation, is itself a transformed text. It will only take you a few hours to read it—but the light it casts and the darkness you see emanating from that casting will follow you long after.
Only a little time is needed now, and the whiteness will leave those wings completely. They will become something other, no longer wings, and the butterfly will be something that is no longer butterfly.