We might turn, dear reader, to the fundamental paradox of the colour white. It is a blankness that is perceptible, a colour and also an absence of colour. It is symbolically associated with light, purity, innocence, perfection, marriage, birth and swaddling cloth, yet also with winding sheets, ice and snow, mute eternity, death, creepy marble and ghosts. Herman Melville argued that the colour ‘strikes … panic to the soul’ and ‘stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation’. Yet there have been avid proponents of it as well, from the Romans (who associated white with gladness) to the 20th-century minimalists to Ai Weiwei and his White Cover Book – not to mention all those billionaires currently whitewashing themselves senseless in west London.
White, as colour/non-colour, is the organising principle of South Korean author Han Kang’s latest novel, which follows Human Acts (published in English in 2016), a response to the 1980 Gwangju massacre, and the 2016 International Man Booker Prize-winning The Vegetarian (2015), concerning the plight of a woman who refuses to eat meat but also the malaise that afflicts inhabitants of nonsensical and violent societies. Han’s style is often conspicuously minimalist and The White Book is arranged into a series of short prose sketches, each nominally about a white object or landscape. The opening is terse and matter-of-fact: ‘I decided to write about white things.’ The unnamed narrator makes a list: ‘Swaddling Bands/Newborn gown/Salt/Snow/Ice/Moon/Rice/Waves/Yulan/White bird/“Laughing Whitely”/Blank Paper/White dog/White hair/Shroud.’ Noting down each item, the narrator states, ‘a ripple of agitation ran through me’: ‘I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.’
With this in mind, the narrator moves to an unspecified European city in a ‘country I’d never visited before’ and takes a short-term lease on a flat. The walls are grey, so she buys a tin of white paint and erases the ‘imperfections’. Outside, it begins to snow, ‘like hundreds of feathers fluttering down’.
Why write about white? One possible answer, as with all such questions, is why not? It is a perennial mystery and a source of wild uncertainty, even horror. For Han’s narrator, white is associated with the blank page, with ‘clouds passing over the fields’, ‘feather-white’ hair, bones, the iridescence of certain objects in the darkness, ‘perpetual snow’, nothingness and a white pebble on a beach: ‘If silence could be condensed into the smallest, most solid object, this is how it would feel.’ In a section called ‘White Birds’ she discovers a ‘congregation of white gulls on the winter shore … As though observing some kind of silent ceremony’. In ‘White City’ she watches aerial footage of her European city, filmed in the spring of 1945: ‘Above the white glow of stone ruins were blackened flecks as far as the eye could see, showing where the fire had touched.’ Now the city has been ‘painstakingly reconstructed’ and everything is fake.
This leads the narrator to her central theme and the ‘wound’ of the opening: the death of her older sister. In a section called ‘Newborn Gown’, she describes her 22-year-old mother, ‘pale from blood loss’, giving birth to a baby ‘with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake’, dressing the ‘bloodied little body’ in a white gown, crying, ‘For God’s sake don’t die.’ Yet the child dies anyway and her father buries her outside. The narrator is arrested by a sorrowful thought: if her sister ‘had lived beyond those first few hours I would not be living now. My life means yours is impossible.’ Yet she is in a city where everything real has been destroyed and only the unreal abides. In this uncanny and illogical place, she decides that her sister must still be alive: ‘As I have imagined her, she walks this city’s streets.’ For most of the rest of the book, the narrator follows this familial ghost, through all the possibilities of her impossible life.
The scenario is richly evocative of Borges’s 1941 story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, in which there are an infinite number of ‘times’ and ‘in some you exist, and not I; in others, I and not you; in others both of us … in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.’ In The White Book the unnamed city becomes a Borgesian realm: at one moment the narrator is dead and her sister is alive, or vice versa, or ‘in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach … we manage to make out each other’s faces.’ Han’s prose style is often intensely powerful but occasionally becomes more than artistically opaque. Yet she binds the elusive properties of whiteness into a beautiful and melancholy fantasy, in which absence becomes presence and the dead are alive.