Can the present save the past? Can the living save the dead? As South Korean author Han Kang revealed in a 2016 interview with the London-based magazine The White Review, these questions interested her during her twenties, only to resurface years later when drafting her novel Human Acts about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath. And they continue to resonate in her writing as evidenced by her most recent work The White Book.
The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her novel The Vegetarian—her first to have been translated into English—Kang is one of South Korea’s most famous literary exports. She has received numerous literary awards in Korea as well as internationally, and with The White Book she continues her fruitful relationship with English-language translator Deborah Smith for Portobello Books.
The narrative (or narratives) pivot on handed-down memories of a family’s loss. A writer’s residency in Warsaw occasions the narrator to reflect on the death of her older sister, who survived fewer than two hours but whose afterlife has furrowed deep emotional scars within her family’s psyche. We are told of the despair and isolation of her twenty-two year old mother, alone and in premature labor one winter’s morning in a remote countryside house, with the village’s only telephone twenty minutes away and her husband at work for another six hours:
For God’s sake don’t die, she muttered over and over like a thin mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes met those of her child, her lips twitched again. For God’s sake don’t die. An hour later the baby was dead.
As the story develops, the narrator’s incantatory invocation of white objects—salt, snow, moon, ice, rice, waves, white hair, a white dog—gradually envelops the reader like the creeping Warsaw fog that slowly rubs away the borders between sky and earth. Amidst this melancholy haze sit the sparse black words of Kang’s prose against the white expanse of each page, intermittently interrupted by nine black-and-white photographic images. This Sebaldian gesture, the interplay between text and image, speaks to the impossibility of pictorial memory and verbal narrative to adequately capture the past as well as the stubborn insistence on attempting to embody that absence in the present.
With its blend of fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography, non-linear narrative, and juxtaposition of text and photographic images, The White Book reveals Kang to be an innovative author committed to formal experimentation. When queried about whether the book should be classified as fiction or essay, Kang preferred the latter while adding that it could also be read as a narrative poem in sixty-five fragments. And this seems well-observed. After all, the story cannot be told because the words and photographs used to tell it are themselves fragments, its narrator clutching at shards of memory—an unnamed child, an unlived life, an unfinished story.
And yet Kang eschews grief’s portentousness with its trauma and unresolved sense of loss in favor of the regenerative possibilities of the creative act, whether that act is the spoken word, the printed page, a moment in time bounded by the play of light and dark that yields a photographic image, or something as illusory as a half-formed thought half-remembered.
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 I have not yet lived, into this book that I have not yet written.
Intensely personal, hypnotically serene, and mournfully meditative, Kang’s thanatopsis reminds readers of the revivifying power of memory and the extent to which we are uniquely endowed within the natural world to withstand the vagaries of forgetfulness and life’s nagging ephemerality. As the narrator writes at one point,