Image credit: Normal Gergely, "Space Administration #28," mixed media

The White Book

Excerpts from Deborah Smith’s new translation

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Original By Han Kang

I

          In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.

Swaddling bands
Baby clothes
Sugar
Snow
Ice
Moon
Rice
Waves
Yulan
White bird
‘Laughing whitely’
Blank paper
White dog
White hair
Shroud

          With each item I wrote down, 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.

          But then, a few days later, running my gaze down over that list again, I wondered how it might be to examine those words, to make a study of them.

          If I rake those words across the heart of me, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, mournful tone the bowstrings draw from the daegeum. Could I hide myself between them, from them, with white gauze as both shield and veil?

          This was difficult to answer, so I left the list as it was and put off anything more. I went abroad in August, to a country I’d never visited before, got a short-term lease on an apartment in its capital, and learned to draw out my days in these strange environs. One night almost two months later, when the season’s chill was just beginning to bite, a migraine set in, viciously familiar, and I tossed down some pills dissolved in a cup of water. And realised (quite calmly) the impossibility of hiding.

          Now and then, the passage of time seems acutely apparent. Physical pain always sharpens the awareness. The migraines that began when I was twelve or thirteen swoop down without warning, bringing agonising stomach cramps that stop daily life in its tracks. Even the smallest task is left suspended as I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time’s discrete drops as a glut of gemstones, grazing my fingertips. One deep breath drawn in, and this new moment of life’s on-going takes shape distinct as a bead of a blood. Even once I have stepped back into the flow, one day melding seamlessly into another, that sensation remains ever there in that spot, waiting, breath held.

          Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. With no time for our will to arrest or impel, 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 the time that I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.


Door 

          This was something that happened a long time ago.

          Before signing the contract for the lease, I went to look at the flat again.

          Its metal door had once been white, but that brightness had faded over time. It was a mess when I saw it, paint flaking off in patches to reveal the rust beneath. And if that had been all, I would have remembered it as nothing more than a shabby old door. But there was also the door’s number. 301.

          Someone – perhaps another in a long line of temporary occupants – had used some sharp implement, maybe a drill bit, to scratch the number into the door’s surface. I could make out each individual stroke. 3, itself three hand spans high. 0, smaller, yet gone over several times, a fierce scrawl that tugged at your gaze. Finally, 1, a single deep-gouged line, taut with the effort of its making. Along this collection of straight and smooth-curved wounds rust had spread like a vestige of violence, like long-dried blood stains, hardened, reddish-black. I hold nothing dear. Not the place I live, not the door I pass through every day, not even, damn it, my life. Those numbers were glaring fiercely at me, clenching their teeth tight shut.

          That was the flat I wanted that winter, the flat in which I’d chosen to spin out my days. 

          As soon as I’d unpacked, I bought a tin of white paint and a good-sized paintbrush. Neither the kitchen nor the bedroom had any wallpaper, and their walls were spotted with stains large and small. These dark splotches were especially conspicuous around any electrical switches. Wearing pale grey tracksuit bottoms and an old white sweater, so the splatters wouldn’t show up too badly. Practically as soon as I’d started to paint, I abandoned any thought of a neat, even finish. It would be enough, I reasoned, just to paint over the stains – surely white splotches were better than dirty ones? I swept my brush over the ceiling’s large patches, where the rain must have seeped through at one time, watching the grey disappear beneath white. I gave the sink’s grubby interior a wipe with a flannel before painting it that same bright white, never mind that its pedestal was brown. 

          Finally I stepped out into the corridor to paint the front door. With each swish of the brush over the scar-laced surface, its imperfections was erased. The numbers disappeared along with the patches of rust. I went back inside the apartment to take a break and get warm, and when I came back out an hour later I saw the paint had run down. It looked very untidy, probably because I was using a brush rather than a roller. After painting an extra layer over the top so the streaks were less visible, I went back inside to wait, letting another hour go by before I shuffled out in my slippers. Snow was falling. The corridor had darkened, and the street lights were not yet on. Paint tin in one hand, brush in the other, I stood unmoving, a dumb witness to the snowflakes’ slow descent, like hundreds of feathers feathering down.


Swaddling bands

          Swaddling bands white as snow are wound around the newborn baby. The womb will have been such a snug fit, so the nurse binds the body tight, to mitigate the shock of its abrupt projection into limitlessness.

          Person who begins only now to breathe, a first filling up of the lungs. Person who does not know who they are, where they are, what has just begun. The most helpless of all young animals.

          The woman, pale from blood loss, looks on the crying child. Flustered, she takes its swaddled self into her arms. Person who does not yet know the cure for this crying. Person who, until moments ago, had been in the throes of such astonishing agony. Unexpectedly, the child quiets itself. It will be because of some smell. And the two are still connected. Two black unseeing eyes are turned towards the woman’s face – drawn in the direction of her voice. Not knowing what has been set in motion, these two people are still connected. In a silence shot through with the smell of blood. When all that lies between two bodies is the white of swaddling bands.


Newborn gown 

          My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.

          I was told that she was a girl, with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake. Though she was very small, born premature, her features were clearly defined. I can never forget, my mother told me, the moment she opened her tiny black eyes and turned them towards my face.

          At the time, my parents were living in a home of their own, in the countryside near the primary school where my father taught. My mother’s due date was still far off, so she was completely unprepared when, one morning, her waters broke. The house was in an isolated spot, away from the village; there was no one around. The village’s sole telephone was in a tiny shop by the bus stop – twenty minutes away. My father wasn’t due back from work for another six hours.

          It was early winter, the first frost of the year. My twenty-two year old mother crawled into the kitchen and boiled some water to sterilise a pair of scissors, as she remembered hearing about somewhere. Fumbling in her work box, she found some white cloth just big enough for a newborn’s gown. It was fear, more than the contractions, that made her hands tremble as she plied her needle, made the tears splash onto the fabric. She finished the tiny gown, found a thin quilt to use as swaddling bands, and gritted her teeth as the pain returned, quicker and more intense each time.

          Eventually, she gave birth. Alone. Alone, she cut the umbilical cord. She dressed the bloodied little body in the gown she’d just made, and held the bawling scrap in her arms. For god’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice, over and over like a mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes encountered those of her child, her lips twitched again. For god’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side, clutching the dead baby to her chest, feeling the cold gradually leach in to the flesh, sinking through to the bone. There was no more crying. The silence swam back in.

Translator Notes


Deborah Smith

×