The following excerpt is from Han Kang’s The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith and out this week from Hogarth. Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The White Book is a lyrical and disquieting exploration of personal grief, written through the prism of the color white.
This was something that happened a long time ago.
Before signing the contract for the lease, I went to look at the apartment 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 attracted attention. 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, a vestige of violence, like long-dried bloodstains, hardened, reddish-black. I hold nothing dear. Not the place where I live, not the door I pass through every day, not even, damn it, my life. Those numbers were glaring at me, clenching their teeth shut tight.
That was the apartment I wanted that winter, the apartment where I’d chosen to spin out my days.
As soon as I’d unpacked, I bought a can of white paint and a good-size paintbrush. Neither the kitchen nor the bedroom had been repapered, and their walls were spotted with stains large and small. These dark splotches were especially conspicuous around any electrical switches. I wore pale gray tracksuit pants and an old white sweater, so the splatters wouldn’t show up too badly. Even before I’d started to paint, I was unconcerned with 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 large patches on the ceiling where the rain must have seeped through at one time, watching gray disappear beneath white. I gave the sink’s grubby bowl a wipe with a washcloth 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 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 that the paint had run. It looked untidy, probably because I was using a brush rather than a roller. After painting an extra coat 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. Snow had begun to scatter down. Outside, the alley had darkened; the streetlights were not yet on. Paint can in one hand, brush in the other, I stood unmoving, a dumb witness to the snowflakes’ slow descent, like hundreds of feathers feathering down.
Certain objects in the darkness
Certain objects appear white in the darkness.
When darkness is imbued with even the faintest light, even things that would not otherwise be white glow with a hazy pallor.
At night, I make up the sofa bed in the corner of the living room and lie down in that wan light. Instead of trying to sleep, I wait, feel my senses attune to the passage of time. The trees outside the window cast silhouettes onto the white plaster wall. I think about the person who resembles this city, pondering the cast of their face. Waiting for its contours to coalesce, to be able to read the expression it holds.
As I have imagined her, she walks this city’s streets. At a crossroads, she sees a section of redbrick wall. In the process of reconstructing yet another shattered building, the wall had been taken down and rebuilt a meter in front of its original position, along with a low epitaph explaining that the German army used it to line up civilians and shoot them. Someone has put a vase of flowers in front of it, and several white candles are crowned with wavering flames.
Wreaths of fog still shroud the city, less thick than in the early morning, translucent as tracing paper. If a strong wind got up and skimmed off the fog, the ruins of seventy years ago might be startled into revealing themselves, pushing out from behind the present reconstructions. The ghosts that were gathered there, very close to her, might stand up straight against the wall where they were slaughtered, their eyes blazing out.
But there is no wind, and nothing is revealed beyond the already apparent. The warm white candle wax creeps ever downward. Feeding themselves to the white wicks’ flames, these stubs sink steadily lower, eventually out of existence.
Now I will give you white things,
What is white, though may yet be sullied;
Only white things will I give.
No longer will I question
Whether I should give this life to you.
Excerpted with permission from The White Book by Han Kang. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2016 by Han Kang. English translation copyright 2017 by Deborah Smith.