Monday, June 25, 2018

Inviolate to the ravages of time

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?
The White Book, by Han Kang, is a difficult book to talk about. It's billed as fiction, but it reads like something between memoir and poetry. It's less book than art. Being so experimental in form, it is difficult to synthesize.

I read it about a month ago, in one sitting. I promptly forgot its details, but the mood of it washed over me and lingered. I revisited portions of it last week in preparation for book club discussion, but again the substance of it has washed away.

It's a beautiful book as object. It's crisp, stark. French flaps. White space. Blank pages. Black and white photos (greyscale, really).

On the whole it leaves me cold (like frost). It's sterile and antiseptic (like salt).

It starts off as a formal exercise, a list of white things. I expect a meditation on whiteness and its associations (a philosophical inquiry à la William H Gass). I am relieved that there is no discussion of race, but other bookclub participants are outraged that there is no discussion of race; how could anyone call their book "The White Book" and not at least acknowledge the issue of race?

The narrator walks through a foreign city. The city is never named. The very first review of this book that I read identified the city; in fact this knowledge piqued my interest in the book. It's a city that I know, and that I don't particularly like. I wonder if I would've been able to identify the city without having been told. I think so. It's a city that was destroyed and rebuilt. It looks old, but it's brand new. It feels... disconnected.

The story, such as it is, is about the narrator's older sister, whom she never met. (Or it is about her relationship with her older sister.) The baby had lived only an hour or so. The heart and soul of the book is the narrator's imagining of her non-sister's non-life. It is a life reconstructed, resurrected; but it's not the real thing. Her sister is a kind of ghost, realized in this city of ghosts.

Whiteness tends toward innocence, purity, peace, and hope. Also blankness, a kind of neutrality. White is all colour.

The narrator has migraines. So do I. I was the only one in our discussion group who has migraines. Statistically, I thought there'd be one more. "I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time's discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones, grazing my fingertips." White pain, like white noise.
Clean, cold light that had bathed her eyes, scouring her mind of all memory.
The book's whiteness is punctuated with colour: a bead of blood, red brick wall, black earth's reflection, the blue tinge of a sluggish dawn, a gunmetal sea.

Fog: "can we really call it white? That vast soundless ululation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness." Is translucence white?
Blizzard: "This vanishing fragility, this oppressive weight of beauty."
Bed linen: "Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of."
Laughing whitely: "Laughter that is faint, cheerless, its cleanness easily shattered. And the face that forms it."
Bones: "That human beings are also constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck."

This book will not advance your understanding of whiteness. It may or may not have achieved any resolution of memory, or guilt, or writer's block.

The end inspires some hopefulness, that all will be whiteness (all will be all colours?), that the narrator will see clearly with her non-sister's eyes. It confirms connection through detachment.

This book is not a story, it's an experience.

Asian Review of Books
The Irish Times
There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

No comments: