Han Kang won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016 for The Vegetarian and The White Book is the second novel of hers to be published in English since then. This rate of publication telescopes the appearance of her books in the original Korean (The Vegetarian was published in that language in 2007) but even so her development has been rapid, with remarkably little overlap of theme or manner between the first and third books of this little splurge of publishing activity. The Vegetarian, originally published as three individual though interconnected novellas, builds in complexity as it goes along, though it starts as a paradoxically tidy narrative of social and existential unravelling.
A housewife turns against meat-eating with great abruptness after a nightmare. Her husband finds that she has emptied both fridge and freezer: it’s not just the taste of animal flesh she is no longer able to bear but its presence. He objects to the waste of money involved (the saltwater eel alone cost 200,000 won) and the wilful collapse of her performance as a cook. It’s impossible to believe that she had once had such a thing as a signature dish, let alone that it had been wafer-thin slices of beef coated in sticky rice powder and dipped in a bubbling shabu-shabu broth. The ramifications of her negative assertion extend beyond the household. At a restaurant dinner with the boss and his wife her abstinence is seen as not just eccentric but actively disruptive.
Yeong-hye wants to have sex as little as she wants to eat meat – or to eat at all. She was always reluctant to wear a bra, and this unfeminine behaviour is now interpreted by her husband as having been a warning sign of the current maladjustment. The family arranges an intervention, as if this were a case of addiction. Her father tries to force-feed her, slapping her, then mashing some pork against her lips, and when she doesn’t open her mouth he slaps her again. This is seen as a shocking violation, but the condemnation has a disturbing undertone – an implication that her father shouldn’t be the one to administer such discipline, as that right has been ceded by him to her high-status husband, whose in-laws are careful to call him ‘Mr Cheong’.
It’s clearly part of the point of the book that Yeong-hye be seen for most of its length from a male point of view, whether appalled or thrilled by her deviation from the norm. The first section is filtered through her husband’s perception – a man who fantasises wistfully about his sister-in-law (he’s even aroused by hearing her voice on the phone), so much more suitable, a businesswoman who nevertheless makes her home life a priority, her only folly being to support a video artist husband who doesn’t pull his weight.
Memories of the dream that made Yeong-hye give up meat – abstinence hasn’t stopped the dream recurring – are the only access the reader has to her inner life: ‘In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.’ Her husband isn’t sympathetic: the only valid reasons for a person’s eating habits to change, according to him, are the desire to lose weight, the alleviation of medical symptoms, the prevention of sleeplessness caused by indigestion – and ‘being possessed by an evil spirit’. If a drastic change of diet is an acceptable response to demonic possession why not to a dream that won’t go away? He admits that he has no great understanding of his wife (‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’) but unreadability seems to be just another of her failings.
Even when he starts forcing her sexually she doesn’t make him a present of her feelings on the matter. Yes, she puts up surprisingly strong resistance the first time, spitting out vulgar curses, and it takes him three attempts to insert himself successfully, and then she just lies there staring at the ceiling, making him feel as if she were a wartime ‘comfort woman’, and he was a Japanese soldier taking his pleasure. Yet she seems to get over it: ‘I went to have a shower, and by the time I returned to bed she was lying there with her eyes closed as if nothing had happened, or as though everything had somehow sorted itself out during the time I’d spent washing myself.’ This rapid recovery makes it easier for him to repeat the process on other occasions. But the next day, sitting at the breakfast table while Yeong-hye keeps her lips pressed tightly together and as usual pays no attention to anything he says, he feels a strong sense of repulsion. Her expression, ‘which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience’, won’t leave his conscience alone.
The second section is also focused on Yeong-hye, though the leading character is her brother-in-law, the video artist. There’s some schematic construction here that accentuates the apparent element of parable in the book: he too feels he married the wrong sister. From his angle of vision, dependability, competence and a willingness to make allowances are unexciting, his wife’s goodness oppressive, while Yeong-hye’s uningratiating looks and strange behaviour are mysterious, even alluring. He likes ‘the way she spoke, so blunt as to be almost uncouth, and without his wife’s faintly nasal inflection; her drab clothes; her androgynously protruding cheekbones. She might well be called ugly in comparison with his wife, but to him she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary.’ By this time, two years after her renunciation of meat, Yeong-hye’s life could certainly be described as denuded and solitary. She lives alone now her marriage has collapsed, and has spent several months in a mental hospital.
If her actions were shaped by nightmare, her brother-in-law’s are guided by an almost fetishistic vision, a scenario for video art quite different from his previous practice. He has filled notebook after notebook with drawings of naked men and women engaged in sex, their bodies painted all over with flowers. This obsession is obscurely connected with a ‘Mongolian mark’ – a common variation in the skin pigment of certain races at birth, though the marks generally fade before maturity – on Yeong-hye’s buttock. At the start of the section he hasn’t even seen it, just heard his wife refer to it, but it somehow triggers his idea for new artwork, after a long fallow period.
No knowledge of the Korean arts scene is required by readers of The Vegetarian. The only real artist mentioned in the text isn’t Korean but Japanese: Yayoi Kusama, who is said to have made a video of bodypainted sexual coupling that annoyed the obsessed artist because it was so alien to his vision, despite the apparent convergence of theme. The reference brings with it a set of relevant associations with art, femaleness and instability, since Kusama has been resident (voluntarily) in a psychiatric hospital since 1977, working in her studio across the street. There’s something brilliantly tactical about claiming the status of disorder without being held back by it. Yeong-hye, of course, is not herself an artist but a muse of a destabilising and even destructive sort.
This isn’t a standard case of obsession, since the artist accepts that even if he can persuade Yeong-hye to take part in his project he won’t be her partner (he’s middle-aged, unprepossessing). He phones her to propose a visit, claiming familial concern but really wanting to enlist her help. It’s hard for him to read her reaction: ‘Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers … It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.’ She’s naked when he arrives, but dresses for his benefit, quite unflustered, as though wearing clothes is merely something expected of her rather than something that she feels to be necessary. She seems at ease, but ‘such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment.’
When he undertakes the relatively innocent task of painting flowers on her bare skin, he is able to step out of his obsession and to consider what participating in the project means (and doesn’t mean) to her:
This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.
This degree of attention paid to a woman’s inner life is unusual in the book. His wife doesn’t get the benefit of anything similar; in fact she, like her sister, is exposed to marital sexual assault. Her husband overrides her consent one night, putting his hand over her mouth to silence that nasal voice, seeking to obliterate everything that resists his projection onto her of the woman he really desires. When it’s all over she cries, but he can’t work out what her tears mean – perhaps ‘pain, pleasure, passion, disgust or some inscrutable loneliness’. Some special skill seems to be needed to decode the feelings of the wife you’ve just assaulted. He gives up on the attempt, and the next day she seems to have forgotten about what happened.
All this gives the impression that The Vegetarian is a rather bleak feminist tract, despite its making no mention of feminism, but the book’s focus steadily shifts, from marriage and society in the first section, through art and sex in the second (escape routes that don’t necessarily lead anywhere), to nature and death in the third. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism had a double status from the first: it was an attempt to evade the brutality of feeding on blood that was also a rejection of living as an animal herself. The flowers painted on her body by her brother-in-law attracted her to his project – they made the bad dreams stop. In the final section, set three years after the first, she is being held in a psychiatric hospital far from the city, where her sister visits her.
The point of view is the sister’s, who should be well placed to understand the forces driving Yeong-hye, having shared her early history with a brutal father, but she too experiences this slow withdrawal from life as baffling. ‘Yeong-hye was retreating from herself, becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister. A forlorn face, behind a mask of composure … descending further into silence.’ At the same time, her actions call into question the normal responses:
She was no longer able to cope with all that [Yeong-hye] reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social restraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.
Yeong-hye’s fantasy seems to be to replace eating with photosynthesis, to stand on her head with leaves sprouting on her body and roots driving down from her hands into the earth. She has sometimes found ways of leaving the hospital grounds, not to escape, but just to stand in the rain, like one of the trees she sees as her brothers and sisters. As she starves herself, the realistic and non-realistic elements of the book intensify, with an effect that could fairly be called expressionistic. The last image of nature in the book offers no guarantee that the vegetable kingdom offers any sort of refuge for human life: ‘The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.’
The South Korea that appears in the background of The Vegetarian has no particular history except at a single moment, when an ex-lover of the video artist, dragged in to help by painting flowers on his naked body, takes a look at his sketches:
Interesting. You know, I’m surprised. I didn’t know you knew how to use colour like this … This is quite an about-turn. Could you really exhibit something like this? Your nickname used to be ‘the May priest’, you know. After Gwangju, your art was so engagé, almost as though you were atoning for surviving the May massacres. You seemed so serious, so ascetic … all very romantic, I have to admit.
In 1980 hundreds of people, mainly students, were killed by the military in Gwangju – the city where Han Kang was born in 1970 – and the massacre is the subject of Human Acts, published in English the year after The Vegetarian. After the filtered narration of the earlier novel, Han’s approach in Human Acts is shockingly direct, starting with the immediate aftermath of a massacre, as bodies are recovered by volunteers and displayed for relatives to identify, in the interval before a further brutal demonstration of power:
Many of them hadn’t been dead long and still looked uncannily alive; Eun-sook would be trying to stuff a jumble of spilled, opaque intestines back inside a gaping stomach when she’d have to stop what she was doing and run out of the auditorium to throw up. Seon-ju, frequently plagued by nosebleeds, could often be seen with her head tipped back, pressing her mask over her nose.
The scenes in the makeshift morgue, which is manned by student volunteers, are startlingly matter of fact, the only touch of reverence provided by candles stuck into empty Fanta bottles.
In an introduction, Deborah Smith, the book’s translator, sketches the historical context and suggests reasons for the subject’s particular timeliness at the moment of its composition. After Park Chung-hee, who had ruled the country since 1961, was assassinated by his own head of security in October 1979, another army general, Chun Doo-hwan, maintained the policy, and before long imposed martial law on the country, closing universities and muzzling the press. Paratroopers were sent in to put down student protests in Gwangju, resulting in a surge of support for demonstrations in favour of the civil authorities and then methodical repression. The army was given 800,000 rounds of ammunition to use against a city with a population of 400,000.
Han Kang was nine at the time of the massacres, though her family had moved from Gwangju to Seoul shortly before they happened. Even so, she was aware of hushed discussions about young people her parents had known there. One morning in the early hours two men came to search the house. Her mother claimed they were from the estate agent, but in that case why had they looked inside the wardrobe? On a visit to Gwangju a couple of years later, her father acquired what she describes as a ‘photo chapbook’, containing images of dead and mutilated bodies. He tucked it away on the highest shelf of a bookcase, sliding it in back to front so that the spine didn’t show, but still she ferreted it out.
Han has spoken to witnesses and consulted plenty of archives, but the writing of the novel may have derived its urgency from a creeping rehabilitation of this discredited period. The Park Chung-hee Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2012, and the next year his daughter Park Geun-hye was elected as the first female president of South Korea. (She was impeached for corruption and removed from office in March 2017.)
The lack of respect shown to the dead bodies in the 1980 crackdown, as Smith explains it, amounted to a separate atrocity. Stacked up, reeking, unclaimed and therefore unburied, those bodies present ‘both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’. She proposes Antigone as a precursor, a reference point for the indispensability of burial rites, part of a contract between men and gods that can’t be set aside to suit the demands of a particular tyrant – she might also have cited the Iliad, in which Priam claims Hector’s body from Achilles, with enmity shamed into acknowledging an overriding set of values. In Korean cosmology, animist belief places great stress on ‘somatic integrity’, something by definition violated when bodies are mutilated, burned en masse, dumped or hidden away.
Koreans hardly have a monopoly on the notion of somatic integrity – our widespread reluctance to sign up for organ donation testifies to that. Yet as the book develops it does support the idea of a particular set of religious beliefs blocking off any possibility of healing, if healing can ever be considered a possibility after such a betrayal. Death without a body has long been a problem in law. Here it’s a metaphysical disaster.
Even when identifications can successfully be made, the funeral rites have a rushed, improvised quality that undoes the resolution being sought:
there ended up being several shrouding ceremonies going on at the same time, at various places along the corridor. The national anthem rang out like a circular refrain, one version clashing with another against the constant background of weeping, and you listened with bated breath to the subtle dissonance this created. As though this, finally, might help you understand what the nation really was.
The national anthem, after all, is also the property of those issued with two rounds for every citizen of Gwangju.
The ‘you’ in this passage is a schoolboy called Dong-ho, who volunteered to help with the processing of bodies and did nothing to seek safety when it was known the military were re-entering the city. He haunts the book, though his youth is only an extreme case. The targets of those rounds of ammunition were predominantly young, idealists who were issued with guns but wondered at the last minute if they could bring themselves to use them (they couldn’t). The time scheme of Human Acts covers various stages of aftermath, both political and emotional: the torture of detainees, the persecution of publishers and translators, the difficulty of living with the damage done. One character protests obsessively to the complaints department of the Provincial Office about the city’s fountains being turned back on, unable to tolerate this symbol of an unreal continuity. Han uses a wide variety of points of view, some of them extreme, with one section narrated by an unidentified corpse stacked up in preparation for burning. Alternations of perspective allow for a certain amount of relief but also function to prevent the emotional edges of the book from being blunted by repetition. Imaginative control enables Han to turn a national trauma little known outside Korea into a literary novel effective internationally, a work with some of the despairing clarity of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. The single piece of clangingly expository story-so-far dialogue – ‘The world’s changed since they assassinated President Park. The labour movement’s gathering strength, and now our bosses can’t force us to work overtime any more’ – could almost have been included to draw attention to the fine judgment shown everywhere else.
A later student uprising, in 1987, led to the overthrow of the Korean Fifth Republic, although there’s no backdated triumphalism in Human Acts. The theme of revulsion from meat reappears from The Vegetarian, with a more particular impact in this context of searing violence and memories impossible to repress:
It wasn’t so much eating meat that Eun-sook disliked; what really turned her stomach was having to watch it cook on the hot plate. When the blood and juices rose to the surface she had to look away. When a fish was being griddled with the head still attached. 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 its 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.
It’s not just that the two books are different. The Korea in which they take place seems different, though the narratives that make up Human Acts continue up to the present tense of the writing. The oddity is that The Vegetarian, with its rather muffled critique of a conformist society and silence about public institutions, was first published in 2007 – at a time when Freedom House rated Korea’s press as ‘free’ – while Human Acts appeared in 2014, when the country’s status had been downgraded to ‘partly free’, and is eloquently angry not only about the cruelties of the previous regime but also its censorship practices, perhaps sensing a resurgence. In one section, set in 1985, Eun-sook, now an editor at a publishing house, receives seven slaps in the face while being interrogated by an official who wants to know how to find the translator of a controversial text. She decides to go home rather than worry her employer: ‘The stretched skin was tightening over her rapidly swelling cheek. She had gone deaf in one ear. One more slap and her eardrum might have burst. She swallowed the metallic blood that had gathered along her gums, and turned towards the bus stop.’ She sets herself to forget those seven slaps, allowing a day for each act of mental erasure, trying her own brand of censorship on her memories.
During her interrogation she struggled to connect the abuse she was receiving (‘A bitch like you, in a place like this? Anything could happen, and no one would find out’) with the man administering it. If they had met by chance on the street, she would have taken him for some run-of-the-mill company manager or section chief. The closest the book comes to explaining this cruelty is a passage in the original text of the book being translated, omitted because it dealt with the 1968 student unrest in Paris (though self-censorship did nothing to pre-empt censorship from outside), in which the author argued that groups act as an amplifier of individual possibility, so that some crowds loot, rape and murder, while others display a level of heroism inaccessible to any single person making up the multitude.
This seems disappointingly bland though Deborah Smith makes a case for it in her introduction, referring to ‘the human acts of which we are all capable, the brutal and the tender, the base and the sublime’. In fact the emphasis of the book is not so much on what people are capable of doing or suffering in particular circumstances, as on what they are incapable of living with after the fact. Eun-sook seeks not only a forgetting of her injuries but oblivion in the more thoroughgoing form of death, wanting to speed up the ageing process and be done with everything. She’s ashamed of the instinct of hunger that keeps her alive – hunger is ‘still a yoke around her neck’. Dong-ho’s bereaved mother makes a similar equation of life with blind appetite, describing herself as ‘forcing each day down like a mouthful of cold rice, even if it stuck in my throat’. A survivor of torture doesn’t refer to being alive but of life clinging to him.
Eun-sook’s editorial work gives her some purpose, but she easily despairs of that too. A play manuscript comes back from the censors nearly obliterated, as if ‘thrown on top a fire and left to blacken, reduced to little more than a lump of coal’. Some paragraphs contain only a few decipherable words (you can see why English PEN gave assistance to the translation of Human Acts): ‘You. I. That. Perhaps. Precisely. Everything. You. Why. Gaze. Your eyes. Near and far. That. Vividly. Now. A little more. Vaguely. Why did you. Remember?’ At one point the producer who wants to put on the play instinctively protects the manuscript from a coffee spill, but Eun-sook doesn’t see the point of protecting it. It isn’t a sacred object to her any more, now everything in it has been nullified. Nevertheless, the producer sends out invitations for the opening. On the first night, in front of a packed house certain to include plainclothes policemen, the actors mouth the lines instead of speaking them, and find other ways of conveying the play’s meaning. Forbidden to speak, one actor shrieks. Staging has taken over from text, and censorship has driven the production towards expressionism.
Eun-sook is privileged, since she is familiar with the words not being spoken. The performance provides some sort of catharsis for her, as she identifies a boy on stage, hugging a small skeleton to his chest as if to keep himself warm, with Dong-ho. The unspoken words – ‘After you died I could not hold a funeral/And so my life became a funeral’ – insist on the permanence of mourning when there is no body. A phrase that appears more than once in the book, originated by an academic researcher interviewing survivors of the 1980 uprising, is ‘psychological autopsy’, suggesting that recovery is not really a possibility. They are the walking dead, disguised as survivors.
After the intense and potentially exhausting engagement with the past of Human Acts, a change of direction might have been predicted, but The White Book amounts to an extreme reaction by any standard, from the full-blooded and even blood-choked to the anaemic. After the third-person narration of The Vegetarian, circling around the central character, and the polyphonic points of view of Human Acts, Han has chosen to use a single, rather precious first person, less a narrator than a connoisseur of fragments. Having decided to write about white things, she makes a list of them (running from newborn gown to shroud) and then spends the winter in a city on the other side of the world the better to contemplate her project. No other reason for this drastic displacement is given. This is a remarkably white book altogether, with many blank pages and isolated paragraphs, and an insistent exquisiteness that can be self-defeating. In Han’s previous books (at least those that have been translated) the aesthetic was only one category among many, but here it excludes any other, and the mood of wonder can seem forced and rhetorical:
What do the ghosts of the city do, these muffled early morning hours?
Slip soundlessly out to walk through the fog that has been holding its breath, and waiting?
Do they greet each other, through the gaps between those water molecules which bleach their voices white? In some mother tongue of their own, another whose meaning eludes me? Or do they only shake or nod their heads, without the need for words?
The narrator gives no details about her life, although she is enough of a public person to be interviewed on the radio, and to be asked if she had an experience as a child that made her sad. She dutifully produces an anecdote about a pet dog, unwilling to share the real sadness, the story she had ‘grown up inside’. Her mother’s first child had been a girl, born prematurely while her parents were far from medical help, living in an isolated house in the country near the primary school where her father taught. The baby lived only a short time, abruptly opening her eyes an hour after being born, and dying an hour or so later. ‘The most helpless of all young animals. Pretty little baby, white as a moon-shaped rice cake … I’d been born and grown up in the place of that death.’
Living in this unfamiliar European city, she realises that if her dead sister’s spirit had visited her, she would have been oblivious, because the girl had never learned language. ‘And so I can neither confirm nor deny that there are times when she has sought me out, hovering at my forehead or by the corners of my eyes. That some vague sensation I had known as a child, some stirring of seemingly unprompted emotion, might, unbeknown to me, have been coming from her.’
Much of The White Book is prettily managed, but all its effects are studiously muted, so that it fits with almost caricatural neatness into the cultural pigeonhole (feminine inwardness, crystalline perceptions in a Japanese mode) that the other books gained power from not fitting. In one of the less wan passages, the narrator describes her mother lying in bed, on the day after the baby’s birth and death, while her husband goes up the mountain with a spade to bury the body, and feeling ‘warmth flood her chest. She sits up, clumsily squeezes her breast. First a watery, yellowish trickle, then smooth white milk.’ There’s poignancy here, but it hardly compares with the intimacy of the breastfeeding in Human Acts, with Dong-ho’s mother addressing him from her bereavement:
My left nipple had been a strange shape for as long as I could remember, and both of your brothers had favoured its properly formed partner. My left breast would still swell with milk, of course, but because they refused to suckle from it, it hardened in a way that was completely different to the soft right breast. It was unsightly, a cross I had to bear for several years. But with you, everything was different. You latched onto the left breast of your own free will, your tiny mouth pulling at that deformed nipple with an astonishing gentleness.
The narrator of The White Book imagines her sister surviving, living to drink that milk, and coming instead of her to this ‘curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own’. Notionally, the narrative shifts from the recounting of the narrator’s impressions to their refraction through the sensibility of her imaginary sister, but there’s no corresponding gain in intensity. Are white flowers connected to life, or to death, ‘she’ wonders. ‘She’d read somewhere that the words “blank” and “blanc”, “black” and even “flame”, literally “fire flower” in Korean, all have the same root in Indo-European languages.’ There’s barely enough energy there for a notebook entry or a blog post.
What’s the resemblance between the non-existent sister and the city anyway? None, unless you accept some atrociously kitsch equations. The city, though unnamed, can only be Warsaw, since it’s described as being 95 per cent destroyed by the Nazis in six months of bombing, starting in October 1944. The postwar city is a reconstruction: ‘The fortresses of the old quarter, the splendid palace, the lakeside villa on the outskirts where royalty once summered – all are fakes.’ And the connection with a premature Korean baby is … ? ‘A person who had met the same fate as that city. Who had at one time died or been destroyed. Who had painstakingly rebuilt themselves on a foundation of fire-scoured ruins. Who was therefore something new. Who, some broken pediment having survived, has ended up bearing a strange pattern, the new distinct from the old.’
If you don’t buy that as the basis for an imagistic novel, how about this? The narrator reads an account, by a man born in this city, in which he claims to have lived for as long as he can remember with the soul of his older brother, killed at the age of six in the Warsaw ghetto. The survivor, having been adopted and brought up in Belgium, didn’t understand until much later what his brother was screaming, ‘the same handful of terror-struck words’ that he choked out when the soldiers came for him. This prompts the narrator’s idea that her own sibling, both older (born first) and younger than her (never grew up) might have been paying silent visits. Far from bringing weight and depth to a rather fragile fantasy, these invocations of Blitzkrieg and Holocaust make The White Book seem even more insubstantial. It’s an error of technique as well as an error of taste. Importing this starkly powerful material is a bizarre way of enriching such a project. And as Human Acts testifies so eloquently, a Korean writer has no need to outsource pain and horror.