Sometimes it’s just the intersection. A book can be perfectly fine, can be read and appreciated, can even be taken as it was intended whilst still not quite being what a person needs to read at a given time. If a person lacks self-awareness, said book could be labelled bad or difficult or failing to deliver on all fronts when in fact it’s more likely to be: not for me at the point I read it.
Han Kang is the Korean author of The Vegetarian (which we liked a great deal) and Human Acts, which we haven’t got to yet. The White Book is unusual. Experimental, in some senses. Scrappy. What we have here is someone arriving in a city that goes unnamed (however a number of clues seem to indicate it’s Warsaw), making a list of white things, writing about each of those white things as she walks about the city, over a period of months.
Along the way, we learn that her mother lost a baby, a young girl, whose death prompted her (the narrator’s) own life. If the baby had not died, it is possible that she herself would never have existed. She imagines a life for the baby. Later she imagines her mother losing a second baby, a boy, who is also given fleeting life. In-between these ruminations, there are oblique, semi-poetic flash fictions on such things as ‘Laughing whitely’ (which “(probably) exists only in her mother tongue”), ‘swaddling bands’ (of the sort that are “white as snow” and “wrapped around the newborn baby”) and white hair’ (as graced the head of one of her bosses, “a middle-aged man who used to say how he longed to see a former lover again in old age”).
We seem to see glimpses of a writer thrust onto the world stage with her debut, dealing with the corresponding demands of fame:
“The moment she went up on stage, the ceiling spotlight flicked on, its strong beam picking her out. At that, all space that was not stage became a sea of black. That an audience was sitting there seemed wholly unreal, and she was thrown into confusion.”
At other times, the gulf that always exists in translation, between what was intended in one language and what was conveyed in another is hard to ignore. So, for example, in the section about a white dog that begins with a riddle, the answer to which makes no sense in English (and no attempt is made to try to bridge the gap):
“What’s a dog that’s a dog that doesn’t bark?
She was a child when she first heard this riddle.
When, or from whom, she doesn’t remember now.”
“A dog that’s a dog, but doesn’t bark?
The lacklustre answer to the riddle is fog.”
Sometimes the language is itself held up to the light and found wanting, her own experience of wandering a city in which she can’t understand or be understood an integument between herself and reality:
“In some mother tongue of their own, another whose meaning eludes me? Or do they only shake or nod their heads, without the need for words?”
In addition to wandering through the “unfamiliar city”, occasional photographs appear, giving the text a Sebald-like quality that gives rise to the sense you have of The White Book being the kind of book an author normally writes much later in their career, maybe immediately pre- or post-winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (Kang feels like a writer who could take the prize one day). And yet at the same time there is a poetic lightness to proceedings that keeps the reader (or this reader, on this occasion) at an arm’s length.
At some point, she writes at the book’s close, she looks with “your” eyes (we presume it is the eyes of a sibling she has lost) and
“will see a glacier. They will look up at that enormous mass of ice and see something sacred, unsullied by life.”
The last five words of that sentence feel like the best possible description of the book. There is a glacial beauty here, but its pristine cold is hard to penetrate.
Any Cop?: Kang already has her devotees and I imagine they will lap this up like the whitest of milks with their little cat tongues – but for us: not so much.