THE WHITE BOOK
By Han Kang
“The Vegetarian” and “Human Acts” introduced English-language readers to the explosive fiction of the South Korean writer Han Kang. Although her new novel, “The White Book,” occupies a somewhat quieter register, it too is formally daring, emotionally devastating and deeply political. Its relative smallness of scale — a scant 157 pages, cut to fit in the palm of the hand — is deceptive, itself the mark of a supremely confident writer.
All three novels have been translated into English by Deborah Smith, whose work has garnered great acclaim: Her translation of “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and “The White Book” was a finalist for the prize in 2016. However, the earlier books have not been without controversy, as several critics noted both errors in the translation of “The Vegetarian” and liberties taken with its original phrasing.
The parameters of a translator’s task are by no means fixed, and can range from word-for-word renderings — one thinks of Nabokov’s famously literal, and famously controversial, translation of “Eugene Onegin” — to something more akin to interpretation. It’s fair to say that Smith’s previous translations of Kang’s fiction veer toward the interpretive. In an interview, she has described “faithfulness” as “an outmoded, misleading and unhelpful concept when it comes to translation.” Numerous articles have been published about this dispute, and some have argued that the amplified register of Smith’s work — the addition of copious adjectives and embellishments — successfully rendered Kang’s fiction more palatable to a Western readership. Whether a more conventionally faithful translation would have won Kang the international audience she now enjoys is a moot point. But the controversy raises a pertinent question: whether the task of translation is simply to bridge the divide between cultures or to somehow also represent that divide. This question is also germane to “The White Book,” which is narrated by a South Korean writer newly arrived in Warsaw.
The narrator travels through a cityscape that bears visible traces of World War II: “The boundaries that 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.” That “she” is the narrator’s older sister, who died “less than two hours into life.” “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.” The confluence of the resurrected city and the lost sister becomes the through-line for a novel told in flashes and fragments, as an act of memory and incantation.
Smith’s rendering of “The White Book” cannot be accused of prolixity. The novel is composed of short entries centered on a word or phrase having to do with the color white, opening with a list that includes “salt,” “shroud” and “blank paper.” From this, the narrator constructs the novel: “Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.”
What follows is a text shot through with “vertiginous thrill.” The dead sister haunts the narrator: “For there are moments, lying in the darkened room, when the chill in the air is a palpable presence. Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die. … Perhaps I, too, have opened my eyes in the darkness, as she did, and gazed out.”
The novel moves fluidly between the “I” and the “she,” in shifts between first and third person, but also in the slow collapse of the boundary between the narrator and the sister, the living and the dead. This culminates in the forging of an alternate history of the sister’s birth: “And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing. Though she had, by now, slipped from consciousness, the nipple in her mouth encouraged a soft swallowing, gradually growing stronger.”
Resurrection is a theme throughout Kang’s work, one that is tied up in political and collective memory. In “Human Acts,” a writer observes an illegal police raid on a group of activists. In it, she sees the specter of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, a sustained protest against South Korea’s military government that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths: “I remember being glued to the television … and surprising myself with the words that sprang from my mouth: But that’s Gwangju. … The radioactive spread is ongoing. Gwangju had been reborn only to be butchered again in an endless cycle. It was razed to the ground, and raised up anew in a bloodied rebirth.”
Among other things, “The White Book” is an urgent plea for the ritual power of mourning — for its significance in terms of both personal and historical restitution. “She thought of certain incidents in her own country’s history,” Kang writes, “the country she had left in order to come here, of the dead that had been insufficiently mourned. Trying to imagine those souls being thus eulogized, in the very heart of the city streets, she realized that her country had never once done this properly.”
Kang explores occupation in multiple forms and contexts, from the Japanese occupation to political demonstrations, always tracing the “radioactive spread” of trauma. But she also makes a case for empathy, one that recognizes both its power and its limitations: “I saw differently when I looked with your eyes. I walked differently when I walked with your body. … But it didn’t come off as I intended. Again and again I peered into your eyes, as though searching for form in a deep, black mirror.” In this subtle and searching novel, Kang, through Smith, proposes a model of genuine empathy, one that insists on the power of shared experience but is not predicated on the erasure of difference.
Katie Kitamura’s most recent novel is “A Separation.”
THE WHITE BOOK
By Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith
157 pp. Hogarth. $20.
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