The White Book
- onAugust 3, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byHan Kang
- The White Book
In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.
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 what meaning might lie in this task, in peering into the heart of these words.
If I rake those words across the heart of me, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string. Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?
This was difficult to answer, so I left the list as it was and put off anything more. I came abroad in August, to this 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 washed down some pills with warm water. And realised (quite calmly) that hiding would be impossible.
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 razor-sharp 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 time I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.
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 scruffy old door. But there was also the way its number, 301, had been inscribed.
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 long deep-gouged line, taut with the effort of its making. Along this collection of straight and 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 where 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 been re-papered, 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. Even before I’d started to paint, I had no ambition of achieving a neat, even finish. It would be enough, I reasoned, just to paint over the stains – surely white splotches are 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 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 impurities were erased. Those deep-gouged numbers disappeared, those rusted bloodstains vanished. 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 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. Another hour went by before I shuffled out in my slippers to find that snow had begun to scatter down. Outside, the alley had darkened; 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.
Translated by Deborah Smith
Printed with permission of Portobello Books, London, UK.
Han Kang has received the Man Booker International Prize 2016, the Yi Sang Literary Award, Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literature Prize. English translations of her books include The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015), Human Acts (Portobello, 2016), and The White Book (Portobello, 2018).