At Dusk.jpg

From the description of this novel I thought it would be a standard mid-late life crisis story about a man contemplating what his ambition and success really amount to. But it turned out to be something much more subtle and nuanced than that with a clever twist at the end. Park Minwoo was raised in a working class neighbourhood surrounded by poverty and gang violence, but became a successful architect heading his own firm. Parallel to his story is that of Jung Woohee who is a 29 year old playwright and director struggling to earn a living by working the night shift at a convenience store while trying to realise her artistic ambitions. What’s so moving about these two story threads is the way they intertwine to say something much larger about how our values and desires can become so twisted over the course of time. While working to create a good life for ourselves and those closest to us we become enmeshed in society’s progress which has a way of paving over history and people who fall by the wayside. This novel says something powerful about how our collective and personal values change over time. 

Something I appreciated most about this novel was the detailed account of Woohee’s difficulty in making a living. She’s forced to work outside regular working hours for below minimum wage and live in substandard accommodation because if she makes any legal complaint she’ll lose her job and shelter. Instances of injustice like this occur all the time, but largely go unacknowledged and I appreciate fiction that deals seriously with this plight. Also, though Minwoo is now in a privileged position he’s portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way where his life is overcast with loneliness. An old friend is reintroduced into his life when he receives a request to call Soona who was the most desired girl in the small village of Moon Hollow where Minwoo grew up. He hasn’t had any contact with her for years. Now letters from her awaken memories of his childhood and make him consider how his achievements turned out very differently from what he expected. My initial confusion about why two different characters had the same name was eventually quelled when the intricate plot finally unfolded in a disarming and thought-provoking way. This is a book whose greater meaning will linger with me.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHwang Sok-yong
White.jpg

It’s been thrilling to see the recent high acclaim and popularity for Han Kang’s powerful distinctive writing. She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for “The Vegetarian” and her novel “Human Acts” is one of the most devastating portrayals of the victims and survivors of mass warfare that I’ve read. Even though she’s been publishing fiction in her native South Korea since 1995, Kang’s writing has only recently been made widely available to a Western audience through Deborah Smith’s excellent translations. It feels exciting that there is such a large back catalogue which might still yet make it into English translation. “The White Book” is another fascinating new book by Han Kang that is uniquely different from those other two English translations, but encompasses some similar themes and familiar inflections of feeling. It could be classified somewhere between a novel, poetry and a memoir. It’s more like an artistic exercise to self consciously meditate on a colour by making a list of white things and then exploring the deeply personal memories and connections surrounding these objects. The result is an intensely emotional series of accounts that form an outline of losses which are invisible, but still palpably felt in the author’s life – especially that of Kang’s sister who was born prematurely and died shortly after her birth. 

Some photographs are interspersed between Kang’s short explorations of different white things and these add a poignancy to the concentration being dedicated to particular objects. Although each separate account of a white thing can often stand alone like a complete thought or memory, the book nonetheless builds a momentum as imagery starts to repeat and their meaning acquires a special resonance. For example, Kang is told her sister’s face was like a moon shaped rice cake. She recalls making dough for rice cakes and shaping them. Later she looks at the moon itself and recalls these cakes and imagines what her newborn sister’s face looked like. These images start to meld together like when purely white objects are placed together and seem to disappear into each other. Suddenly it feels like this absence is all around and has the power to make itself felt in any empty white space that appears. Kang also lists other absences like a man’s father who was lost on a hiking trip in the Himalayas or, more broadly, the casualties of war from the country she left and “the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.” In particular, this account of ‘Spirit’ feels very reminiscent of the anger and determination to memorialize victims which fills Kang’s novel “Human Acts.”

There’s also a familiar feeling of guilt and unworthiness which permeates much of the text. Objects can often stand for something significant in Kang’s life such as a validation for simply existing. So a “crisp cotton bedsheet” says to her “Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.” The questions that beg to be asked are: why might her sleep feel dirty and why would she be ashamed to be alive. An insolvable conflict arises when Kang considers how if her sister hadn’t died as a newborn her mother wouldn’t have continued having children and Kang would never have been born. This instils a peculiar kind of guilt within the author who simultaneously mourns her sister, but is nonetheless grateful that her early death allowed Kang the chance to exist. Despite knowing logically that there can be no fault assigned to these events which led to her sister’s death and her survival, a burning sense of culpability still plagues Kang’s consciousness.

So it comes as a blissful relief at some points when certain white things don’t carry any such burdensome associations. There’s a very sweet and simple memory which accompanies sugar cubes and from this Kang declares “There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.” This is a very important assertion within the collection because it’s a key to her understanding of how we project our emotions, sensibility and personal history into things. White is essentially a blank canvass. We can imaginatively fill it with anything we want and take anything from it that we want because there’s nothing really there. In the same way, our emotions don’t really exist except in the transitory moment. We can choose to let them control us or we can allow them to dissipate into that blank white space. This is an extraordinarily artful and beautifully meditative book. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang
2 CommentsPost a comment

There is a disturbing thing which can occur when we’re faced with death on such a large scale as that which occurs in war or disasters. A group of individuals can be reduced to a number. Even when faced with piles of bodies we can start to think of them as things rather than people because the horror of what we’re seeing is too terrifying to deal with. This certainly happened to me a couple of years ago when I was watching the film ‘Night Will Fall’ about the process of creating a documentary with footage taken by Allied Forces inside German concentration camps. It’s a reality almost too nightmarish for the mind to deal with, but of course you can’t turn away from victims who’ve been rendered voiceless. “Human Acts” begins with such a startling confrontation and gradually reinstates the human face of those who’ve been lost as well as testifying to the struggle of those who survive. It starts with the immediate aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea where hundreds of demonstrators protesting the military dictatorship were killed and beaten by government troops. This novel traces the survivors of this conflict using a radical style of writing to weave in and out of their perspectives, that of the dead and the reader her/himself who becomes inextricably drawn into the reality of their situation.

Adolescent school children work to prepare and organize bodies to be identified by their loved ones and readied for a funeral ceremony. A boy looks for one body in particular – his friend who was killed while by his side in the skirmish. When asked if he feels any fear working with so many corpses he replies: “'The soldiers are the scary ones… What's frightening about the dead?'” The consciousness of his dead friend persists in the narrative. Through it, he shifts the reader’s focus and the story’s point of view so we see the scenes from both the deceased and the characters still living in fear of the militia. It’s remarked at one point that “Being left as the sole survivor would have been the most frightening thing.” The novel follows the price of survival over many years until close to the present day. It includes stories of different aspects of the conflict and the society through the perspectives of a variety of characters including an editor dealing with state censorship, a prisoner, a factory girl and a grieving mother who demands official acknowledgement for the loss of her son. 

Han Kang's writing style changes throughout different sections of the book. At some points she invokes an interior voice or uses the confrontational second person "you" which could be directed at the reader or a specific character. Other times the narrative has a more documentary feel switching back and forth from the present to the past. Each shift in her method of telling better reflects these very different individuals’ stories which involve some recurring characters. It was interesting starting this new novel “Human Acts” having so recently read Kang’s book “The Vegetarian.” Whereas this earlier book explored a woman’s inwardly blossoming but outwardly deteriorating life through the perspective of three people close to her, “Human Acts” is simultaneously a novel with a broader political perspective and also more intensely personal to the author herself. It’s significant that the afterward is in the author’s own unmediated voice discussing the significance of the Gwangju Uprising on her family and how she approached this story. This is a novel about the legacy created by those members of the population living under a military regime who were willing to bravely stand up to it. Kang imaginatively takes readers into the reality of these victims’ lives and provokes serious questions about individual responsibility. She states: “Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.” Their actions and personal sacrifice made a statement which has shaped the country’s history. It’s also about the actions taken by the survivors of this conflict to memorialize those who lost their lives and are continuing their fight for human independence. “Human Acts” is a novel filled with significant insight.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang

I've been wanting to read this novel since it was published earlier this year. It's interesting getting to it now so soon after reading "Fates and Furies" because both novels are concerned with the way women's points of view are suppressed in narratives, but they have very different approaches. In "The Vegetarian" the novel begins with a conventional man's perspective complaining how his unremarkable wife Yeong-hye suddenly became a vegetarian, thus passively disrupting their blandly ordered existence. His cruelly reductive opinions about his wife suggest that she is especially unspecial: “She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world” but his perspective is interspersed with short intense italicised passages revealing this wife's inner monologue. Like a modern day Bartleby, by resisting to observe convention and quietly refusing to do what's expected of her, the wife's family become incensed and her life completely changes. What follows is a novel of strange beauty as a woman's strong inner-life is gradually revealed and the constrictive society around her is forced to acknowledge the power of her independent perspective.

An artist is inspired by the radical and colourful artist Yayoi Kusama to paint nude bodies with flowers. 

An artist is inspired by the radical and colourful artist Yayoi Kusama to paint nude bodies with flowers. 

In some ways this is a surreal story where a woman believes that she's gradually transforming into a plant. The reasons for this transformation are very different from the narrator in Ali Smith's story 'The beholder' in “Public Library” who experiences a real blossoming of branches and flowers out of her/his body. At the same time “The Vegetarian” is a brutally realistic tale about the long-term effects of child abuse and the diminishment of women in society. Her transition begins in earnest when in the second section her sister's artist husband creates a video installation centred on painting flowers on Yeong-hye's naked body. This is a project bourne out of his sexual obsession and was in part inspired by the artist Yayoi Kusama who colourfully painted her subjects bodies and let them interact with each other. The brother-in-law's project is more sinister as his secret desire to possess and have sex with Yeong-hye builds to a terrifying scene.

The novel's focus eventually shifts to her sister In-hye's perspective and concerns Yeong-hye's being sectioned after her total mental breakdown. Here the story becomes much more intimate and confessional. The spectre of an abusive father looms large so that Yeong-hye's transition from submissive wife to outright rebellion seems entirely logical. Normality is inverted because beneath the veneer of civilization there is a world of hidden pain. So it feels that “sometimes it's the tranquil streets filled with so-called 'normal' people that end up seeming strange.” I admired how the novel gradually builds a complex portrait of a woman's inner life created entirely from the points of view of the people around her. The reader is given hints and suggestions of a radically different form of consciousness that wants to rapidly evolve to a more organic existence, yet she's suppressed by the social world that uses limited terms to define her life. “The Vegetarian” is a novel of rebellion, hope and rare passion.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang
3 CommentsPost a comment