Sidharth Vardhan

Of White Things

Categories: ,
Published: 2016
Writing while on a residency in Warsaw, a city palpably scarred by the violence of the past, the narrator finds herself haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. A fragmented exploration of white things - the swaddling bands that were also her shroud, the breast milk she did not live to drink, the blank page on which the narrator herself attempts to reconstruct the story -…

(A review of Han Kang's novel 'The White Book',
the English translation by Deborah Smith
was shortlisted for International Man Booker
First written on March 15, 2019)

"In the spring, when I decided to write about white things the first thing I did was to make a list.

Swaddling bands. Newborn gown. Salt. Snow. Ice. Moon. Rice. Waves. Yulan. White bird. “Laughing Whitely”. Blank paper. White dog. White hair. Shroud.

With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound …… I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.

Han Kang (The White Book)

Han Kang is a genius. I could give her a noble prize. This book sits somewhere in the subset between a novel and the act of writing it and a collection of prose-poems and between truth and imagination. The fragments are themed on white objects as the author is inspired by sight of Warsaw (a city that had to rebuild itself back from complete destruction after second world war) to imagine the life of his mother's first daughter who lived only for two hours. If this sister had survived, Han would never have been born:

“This life only needed one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now. My life means yours is impossible. Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces."

Han Kang (The White Book)

There are readers who would only read with their brains - and are always hungry for ideas like 'The Vegetarian'. They won't be too impressed by this one. It is a very autobiographic, very personal book. There are so many times when she reminded me of Woolf in the way she could turn simple everyday thoughts into philosophical truths without ever losing lyricality:

"Sugar Cubes She was around ten years old at the time. Her first outing to a coffee shop, accompanied by her aunt, was also the first time she set eyes on sugar cubes. Those squares wrapped in white paper possessed an almost unerring perfection, surely too perfect for her. She peeled the paper carefully off and brushed a finger over that granular surface. She crumbled a corner, touched it to her tongue, nibbled at that dizzying sweetness, then eventually placed it in a cup of water and sighed as she watched it melt away. She isn’t really partial to sweet things anymore, but the sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories that remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is colored by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin."

Han Kang (The White Book)

It is books like these that make living worthwhile.

More Quotes (I could quote the entire book)

“White hair.
She remembers one of her bosses, a middle-aged man who used to say how he longed to see a former lover again in old age, when her hair would be feather-white. When we’re really old... when every single strand of our hair has gone white, I want to see her then, absolutely.
If there was a time when he would want to see her again, it would certainly be then.
When both young and flesh would have fallen away.
When there would be no time left for desire.
When only one thing would remain to be done once that meeting was over: to separate. To part from their own bodies, and thus to part forever.”

Han Kang (The White Book)

“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way.”

Han Kang (The White Book)

"Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is, in fact, illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.”

Han Kang (The White Book)

On cold mornings, that first white cloud of escaping breath is proof that we are living. Proof of our bodies’ warmth. Cold air rushes into dark lungs, soaks up the heat of our body and is exhaled as perceptible form, white flecked with grey. Our lives’ miraculous diffusion, out into the empty air.”

Han Kang (The White Book)


And she frequently forgot,

That her body (all our bodies) is a house of sand.

That it had shattered and is shattering still.

Slipping stubbornly through fingers.”

Han Kang (The White Book)

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