Han Kang is a writer whose books are in conversation with each other. Themes and images migrate from one book to another. A line of dialogue that appears in one novel forms the basis of the next. Her books build on each other the way a nautilus creates its shell. As the mollusk grows, it builds a new chamber and seals off that which is no longer necessary.
The First Chamber
Han was born in 1970 in Gwangju, South Korea. She began writing at the age of 23 and hasn’t stopped since. She is the author of seven novels, three short story collections and one poetry bundle. For readers like me with access only to her English language translations, we have three of her novels: The Vegetarian (2007 in Korean, 2015 in English), Human Acts (2014 / 2016), and The White Book (2016 / 2017).
The Vegetarian was Han’s break-out novel in the English-speaking world. It won the 2016 Man Booker International prize, garnering fame and attention for both Han and her translator Deborah Smith. In that novel, Yeong-hye outrages her family by becoming a vegetarian. In response, her husband rejects her; her father tries to force a piece of meat into her mouth; and her brother-in-law becomes sexually obsessed with her.
Han depicts a society where no meal can be complete without meat and obedience is the highest quality in a female. Yet she insists that her novel is no “singular indictment of Korean patriarchy”. Indeed, it is a multi-count complaint that resonates today.
“Escape the Corset” is a campaign started in 2018. It rejects the exacting measure of feminine beauty imposed on South Korean women. That standard requires:
pale skin, big eyes, a high nose bridge, skinny legs, cherry-like lips, a small face and a nine-to-one body ratio, where the body is nine times as long as the face. While every country has its own sense of what is ideal, South Korea’s strong conformist streak has led to millions striving to achieve the same look.Benjamin Haas, ‘Escape the corset’: South Korean women rebel against strict beauty standards in The Guardian, 26 Oct 2018 (accessed 25 Mar 2019)
In The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye breaks all the rules. She refuses to wear a bra or comport herself as a dutiful wife. It cannot be a coincidence that her sister, In-hye, who is often described as wearing a mask, owns a cosmetic store in Seoul. One of the last images we see of Yeong-hye is in a handstand, trying to take in nutrients like a tree.
When Han was ten years old, she and her family moved to Seoul. A few months later, the Gwangju Uprising broke out. Between 18 and 27 May 1980, nearly a quarter million people demonstrated against the authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee. The demonstration was brutally quashed. Estimates for the number of dead vary between 200 (government figures) and 2,000 (activists) dead. In violation of Korean tradition, those dead were not given the proper burial rites. Their corpses were burned or shoveled into mass graves, a second kind of massacre.
Human Acts opens in a high school gymnasium hastily converted into a morgue. As more dead bodies arrive, space becomes tight and the stench overwhelming. Han refrains from showing us the pandemonium of an uprising; instead she focuses on its effects. The title of each chapter is nothing more than a name and a date: The Boy. 1980; The Editor. 1985, The Writer. 2013.
Han describes The Vegetarian and Human Acts as a pair. The revulsion Yeong-hye experiences when eating meat in The Vegetarian is mirrored in Human Acts when Eun-sook, the Editor, describes a fish being grilled.
That moment when moisture formed on the frozen eyeballs as they thawed in the pan, when a watery fluid flecked with grey scum dribbled out of the gaping mouth, that moment which always seemed to her as though the dead fish was trying to say something. She always had to avert her eyes.
Like Yeong-hye, Eun-sook has no desire to conform. She refuses to wear make-up, perfume or high heels. She works as an editor for a publisher of dissident literature. Eun-sook is targeted for interrogation by a policeman eager to find the authors. He slaps her seven times in the same spot, hard enough to break the skin, hard enough for her right ear to go deaf.
In 2013, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, became president of South Korea. As translator Deborah Smith described it, “the past rose up and ripped the bandage off old wounds for Gwangju-ites like Han Kang.”
The character of the Writer doesn’t appear until the epilogue to Human Acts. The year is 2013. The Writer returns to the gymnasium where so many dead once lay. She’s looking for ghosts.
I’ll zip up my hooded top and stay here until the sun goes down. Until the outlines of the boy’s face solidify. Until I hear his voice in my mind. Until his retreating figure begins to hover over the invisible floorboards, flickering like a candle’s guttering flame.
The Third Chamber
Unlike The Vegetarian and Human Acts which wear the clothing of a novel, The White Book is naked. A mere 150 pages long, The White Book looks and feels like a poetry collection with its blank pages and photographic images. Reviewers have described this latest work of Han as a meditation or psychogeography. Han herself admits that The White Book is “a very short book that’s difficult to classify, a kind of essay-cum-prose poem.”
It’s easy to conclude, as NPR did, that The White Book bears no connection to its elder sisters “except for its stunningly beautiful writing and its preoccupation with mortality”. On the contrary, Han says. There is a line of dialogue that moves directly from the mouth of Eun-sook into the soul of The White Book.
When I was writing Human Acts, there was a line of dialogue: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.” It was strangely familiar and it hovered inside me. Suddenly I discovered that it was from my mother’s memory: she told me she kept saying those words repeatedly to the sister who had died before I was born.Han Kang, Interview with Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, 17 Dec 2017 (accessed 25 March, 2019)
Han’s three books share other familial traits. In The Vegetarian, Han uses italics to mark Yeong-hye’s internal monologues, sequences that The New York Times described as “approaching a post-language state”. In The White Book, Han lists the white things that form the nacreous structure of her nautilus shell.
Swaddling bands / Newborn gown / Salt / Snow / Ice / Moon / Rice / Waves / Yulan / White bird / ‘Laughing whitely’ / Blank paper / White dog / White hair / Shroud
The Vegetarian first appeared in Korean as three separate novellas. Human Acts once existed in the form of a short story collection. The White Book organizes text fragments into three parts: “I”, “She”, and “All Whiteness”. It represents the next logical step in Han’s determination to smash her narrative into fragments. As The Irish Times so wisely notes, “There are hundreds of ways to tell a story.”
The Vegetarian was Deborah Smith’s first published translation from Korean to English. When The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize in 2016, the critics descended upon her. They accused her of embellishment, inauthentic word choices, outright mistranslation. She defended herself by stating “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”
Since then, Smith has translated Human Acts and The White Book, as well as numerous essays penned by Han. Yet every translation presents its own challenges. For Human Acts, Smith says she:
had to hunt down as many synonyms as possible for ‘erase,’ a word which kept cropping up in the original