Fifty shades of white

In the early 1900s, the life and art of painter Pablo Picasso was hugely influenced by the death of his close comrade, poet Carles Casagemas. From 1900-1904, Picasso painted almost entirely in hues of pensive blues and greens—the ‘blue period’.

South Korean writer Han Kang’s latest work The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith and recently longlisted for the Man Booker International prize, is a manic contemplation on the colour white. The narrator ruminates on the untimely death of her baby sister, the moments that marked her entry into the world and her exit, all through the lens of white matter and against the backdrop of Warsaw, Poland. The epic of a baby with the “face as white as a crescent moon rice cake” is transplanted into a world of white swaddling clothes, blizzards, salt and breast milk. The wounds in the mind of the narrator—when asked about a painful memory during a radio interview, she can only talk about a dog that died when she was five—resonate with the fractured soul of the once war-torn landscape.

The novel automatically draws comparison to Kang’s 2016 Booker Prize winning tour de force The Vegetarian. The book tells the tale of Yeong Hye, a completely unremarkable woman leading an unremarkable life with her husband, who becomes obsessed with vegetarianism. The story follows her attempt to break out of the constraints of a conservative society—familial ties, patriarchy and forbidden love come into play—and, what follows is an understated narration of kaleidoscopic madness, resolving, at the very end, into calming hues of ascetic white. In The White Book, she attempts to make sense of the white, dispersing it through fog, lakes, light and darkness—hopping between childlike wonder and silent contemplation. The book is an intensely private affair. A comfortable insulation of white noise, masking eternal murmurs of the ghosts of memories past.