On reading Han Kang’s White Book by the pool

by Philip Gowman on 17 November, 2017

in Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

White Book

In general, I tend not to read much literary fiction. If I’m reading stuff which is unrelated to Korea, it’s likely to be either non-fiction or easy reading – a detective story or something reasonably lightweight. When it comes to Korea-related reading, until relatively recently the balance has again been in favour of non-fiction. But with the growing availability of newly translated fiction from Korea my diet has been changing accordingly.

Confession time: most of the time it’s with a sense of self-imposed obligation that I open the covers of a Korean novel for the first time. Sometimes, that sense of duty immediately evaporates and I can’t put the thing down – Kim Young-ha’s I hear your voice is my most recent experience in that category, no doubt partly thanks to Krys Lee’s translation (he has not always been so fortunate). Sometimes it’s a slow-burn experience that brings tremendous cumulative rewards over the full length of the novel (Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back). Sometimes you enjoy half of it and you continue to the end for the sake of that first half (Han Yujoo’s Impossible Fairy Tale); or you don’t even particularly enjoy the first half but nevertheless persevere to the end because you respect the author or perhaps because people you respect have recommended it, or maybe simply because everyone else is reading it – and you end up resenting the time your have invested (Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll be right there).

And then there’s the category of books where, despite the positive reviews, or your respect for the author, you read the first few pages, think “WTF?”, conclude that life is too short to waste on a text that seems pointless or incomprehensible, and consign the book to the charity pile without proceeding any further. Of course, you get examples of this in any literature, and there are plenty of novels by noted British writers that have suffered this fate at my hands. But it is coming to something when, despite my enhanced sense of commitment to Korean fiction, I give up on a novel after the first dozen pages.

Two recent examples.

First, Bae Suah’s A Greater Music. I’ve never really bonded with her stuff. Highway with Green Apples left me with a grey, foggy impression of not very much, while Nowhere to be Found I had to read twice before concluding that I had wasted my time. Bae divides her English audience: Tony Malone is a fan, while Charles Montgomery is less of one. Tony recommended A Greater Music as one that I should try – the most accessible of her longer pieces – and I was happy to give it a go not least because of the title’s superficial resemblance to Vikram Seth’s wonderful An Equal Music. Big mistake. I’m not sure I even made it to page 10 before thinking: “enough pondering about whether it makes any sense to debate whether Beethoven’s second piano concerto is greater than his third. I know which one I prefer. Now get on with the story already.” I concluded that my time would be better spent with Han Kang’s White Book.

I loved (probably the wrong word) Han Kang’s Human Acts; and her slightly weird Vegetarian was my favourite of the Korean fiction I read in 2015. Given the attention she and her translator Deborah Smith have rightly received it is only to be expected that the White Book should be hotly anticipated. Rave reviews have duly followed, with adjectives such as “luminous”, “sublime” and “profound” being tossed about in the mainstream press in pieces coinciding with the translation’s publication (how often does that happen for a Korean novel?). And I duly packed it in my holiday suitcase (along with A Greater Music). Sadly, I find myself unable to join in with the general enthusiasm. For me, it’s a WTF book, like its cover image, which appears to be someone holding up a pair of my late grandmother’s baggy bloomers. I lasted as far as page 20, and even though there’s not much to read (there’s almost as much blank space as there is text) I gave up. Yes, some of those brief chapters have a poignancy, like a poem, but I couldn’t see it going anywhere, and if I wanted a collection of poems (which I’m ashamed to say I rarely do) I’d go out and buy one. It’s one of those books I’d prefer to hear or read about than actually read for myself. As I sat trying to read the book by the side of the pool on holiday, on the same day that she was launching it in London, I though to myself that I’d rather shortcut the experience of reading the thing, and instead teleport myself to Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road in the hope of getting some insights from the author herself as to what it is meant to be about. But the technology does not exist.

So it’s time to turn to non-fiction for the rest of the break. James B Lewis, Frontier Contact between Choson Korean and Tokugawa Japan, here I come.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony December 7, 2017 at 10:21 pm

Ah, unsurprisingly, my view on the book is somewhat different 😉 I was fairly positive in my review (out yesterday), and I think your problems with it are fairly clear in this post. If you’re more into non-fiction, and not a huge fan of poetry, then I’m not really that shocked to find that this doesn’t appeal…

Philip Gowman December 7, 2017 at 11:11 pm

Thanks for your thoughtful review, though, which is making me think of reaching for it again to give it a bit more of a chance. But first I’ve got to do all the Christmas card admin. Yours will be in the post tomorrow!

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