Nominated for the Booker Prize, Han Kang’s latest novel asks if literature can heal real-life tragedy

Korean novelist Han Kang became an international literary sensation after the English translation of her novel “The Vegetarian” was published in 2015. It was not the first of Han’s books to be translated into English. A short story/novella called “Convalescence” appeared in 2013, but had little impact. “The Vegetarian” was a different story altogether; strange, horrific, compelling and difficult to ignore. Han’s novel was showered with praise and garlanded with accolades. When it won the Man Booker International Prize in May 2016, it announced the arrival of both a novelist with a unique voice and a talented translator on the stage of world literature.

The novel, which had sold modestly before, suddenly found its way onto bestseller lists around the world. This success was followed by controversy over the quality and style of translation by Deborah Smith, the novel’s young British translator. Korean academics who looked at the English translation argued that it diverged from the original text too significantly to be considered a true translation. The controversy was widely reported and served to highlight contentious issues around the nature of literary translation.

Smith and Han have continued their collaboration with two more English translations of Han’s novels. “Human Acts,” published in 2016, tells a series of interconnected stories centered around the Gwangju massacre and its aftermath in Korea in the early 1980s. Like “The Vegetarian” before it, “Human Acts” earned rave reviews and further solidified Han’s reputation as a vital voice in world literature. The success of Smith and Han’s most recent collaboration, “The White Book,” has once again pushed them back towards the center of world literature.

It was announced in April that “The White Book” was on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize alongside novels from France, Hungary, Spain, Iraq and Poland. Han’s novel, just called “White” in Korean, is absolutely deserving of its place on the shortlist. It is a singular work from a unique writer pitched somewhere between poetry and memoir. Written and set in Poland’s capital Warsaw and inspired by the brief life of an older sister who died shortly after birth, “The White Book” is many things at once — an act of literary restoration for a sibling who never had a chance to live, an homage to a city, and a rumination on the theme of “white.” Han’s novel asks a similar question to Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” — can literature, storytelling and imagination recuperate real-life tragedy? Readers may find the answer in “The White Book.”

“The White Book”

Written by Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith
Published by Portobello Books Ltd
Hardcover: 128 pages
Available at Amazon

Written by Barry Welsh