Han Kang has been one of my favourite authors since I first read her novel on the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, Human Acts, two years ago. A harrowing, painfully poignant tale about those whose lives were shattered, or as she put it in this book, irreversibly altered by the tragedy; people who had at one time died or been destroyed, who had to rebuild themselves on scorched ruins; people who, as a result, now bear strange scars marking where their old self ends and the new one begins.
There’s a saying that goes something like this – writers don’t usually get to choose what they write about, at least not consciously; instead, those things choose them. It occurred to me that this might be the case for Han Kang, when I first read Human Acts. There was a palpable sense of anguish and despair embedded in each word. Not the kind that leaps off the pages to grab you by the throat, but the kind that builds slowly, over time, permeating the air around you, where it sits and oozes and weeps, like a festering wound.
And something like that doesn’t just go away with time. Many of her works are marked by the same preoccupation with mortality – what it means to live and to die, and perhaps more importantly, what it means to be human. In the Vegetarian, the concept of human existence is stripped down to its very core and challenged with a kind of brisk indifference that is only possible with the sort of freedom that most of us can only dream of; in Human Acts, we are forced to confront some of the ugliest, darkest parts of humanity and decide for ourselves whether it is worth it, whether the light and beauty will ever be worth the pain, suffering and evil lurking in the inevitable shadows.
흰 (The White Book) poses similar questions in a slightly different tone. Here the sadness is not piercing and laced with anger, but a soft, quiet trickle. It’s a collection of meditations on the colour white, on grief, loss and the fragility of human existence. Each chapter gives us a glimpse into Han Kang’s mind, built around something white. Fog, moon-shaped rice cakes, breast milk, bones under x-ray, spirit.
I used to see white as the colour of peace and innocence. The colour of absence, of void. The colour of nothingness. The colour of purity, of beginnings, of something not yet sullied by the ravages of time and men.
Now, when I see the colour white – I think of the in-betweens. The space between this second and the next, between life and death, between existing and unexisting, between day and night, between hope and despair. It is curious that something so simple at first glance should be so all-encompassing – just like life itself.
The book was translated to English by Deborah Smith, who also translated the Vegetarian and Human Acts. I’ve seen criticisms of her translations from readers and industry peers alike who felt she altered too much of the original text, to the point that the essence of Han Kang’s style was lost, and in some instances, the message.
It is true that she made a lot of changes. When I read the English translation (I wanted to see how she interpreted some of my favourite parts of the book), I felt as if I was witnessing some sort of metamorphosis. It was fascinating to see how she unravelled Han Kang’s words, shattered them, and rearranged them into something different, new almost. While I wouldn’t say I agree with all the changes she made, there were a few instances where I felt that the book actually gained something from her reinterpretation. As someone who tries to write in both languages, I enjoyed seeing how Hang Kang’s words morph under her pen and occasionally scribbling down my own translations between the lines.
I leave you with some of my favourite quotes from the book:
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 become something that is no longer butterfly.Han Kang, Wings, The White Book (tr. Deborah Smith)
Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?Han Kang, Lace Curtain, The White Book (tr. Deborah Smith)
It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.Han Kang, Sugar Cubes, The White Book (tr. Deborah Smith)