From The White Book, published this month by Hogarth. Kang is a professor of creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
The day she was born was one of frost rather than snow, yet her father chose seol, snow, as one of the characters for his daughter’s name. Growing up, she was unusually sensitive to the cold and resented the chill embedded in her name. But she liked to tread the frost-covered ground and feel the semifrozen earth through the soles of her sneakers. The first frost, as yet untrodden, has the fine crystals of pure salt. The sun’s rays pale slightly as the frost begins to form. White clouds of breath bloom from warm mouths. Trees shiver off their leaves, incrementally lightening their burden. Solid objects like stones or buildings appear subtly more dense. Seen from behind, men and women bundled up in heavy coats are saturated with a mute presentiment, that of people beginning to endure.
It was on the outskirts of this city that she saw the butterfly. A single white butterfly, wings folded on a reed bed, one November morning. No butterflies had been seen since summer; where could this one have been hiding? The air temperature had plummeted in the previous week, and it was perhaps on account of its wings frequently freezing that the white color had leached from them, leaving certain parts close to transparent. So clear, they shimmer with the black earth’s reflection. Only a little time is needed now and the whiteness will leave those wings completely. They will become something other, no longer wings, and the butterfly will be something that is no longer butterfly.
Walking this city’s streets until her calves had grown stiff, she waited. For something of her native language, sentences or even mere scraps of words, to surge swiftly to the tip of her tongue. She thought she might be able to write about snow. In this city, where they say it snows for half the year.
She kept a dogged watch for the coming of winter. Studied the shop windows, the reflections shown there not yet blurred by streaks of snow. The heads of others passing through the streets, still with no powdery dusting. Those slanting forms, not yet snowflakes, barely grazing the foreheads of strangers. Her own cold fists, which she clenched to white.
Against the background of a black coat sleeve, a large flake of snow will reveal its crystals even to the naked eye. A scant couple of seconds and she has witnessed it all. Mysterious hexagons melting clean away.
When it first begins to fall, people stop what they are doing and turn their attention to the snow. On a bus, they lift their eyes from their laps and gaze out of the window for a time. Once the snow has been soundlessly strewn about, with an equal absence of joy or sorrow, and the street’s erasure is complete, the people turn their faces away, and the blurring streaks are no longer reflected in their eyes.
One late night long ago, she’d seen a man lying at the foot of a telegraph pole. He was slumped on his side. Had he fallen? Was he drunk? Should she call an ambulance? While she vacillated, unable to move away from the scene yet wary of drawing nearer, the man heaved himself halfway up and focused his blank gaze on her. She inched, startled; though there seemed no immediate threat of violence, the alley was otherwise deserted. She walked on with hurried steps, then turned to look back. The man was squatting on the cold pavement, still in the same awkward position, staring piercingly at the grimy rendered wall that stretched along the alley’s opposite side.
he who had shipwrecked himself in an alley, who had pushed himself up on cold-numbed hands,
thinking of what his life has been,
of the loneliness that waits for him at home,
thinking what is this, what the hell is this
damned dirty white
Sparse flakes fly in all directions.
In the black air where the streetlights do not touch.
Whirled above the black branches of wordless trees.
Brushing against the bowed heads trudging through the night.
She’d considered living somewhere in sight of perpetual snow. Where the bodies of trees clustered close outside her window would mark each shift in season against the unchanging backdrop, off in the distance, of permanently ice-capped mountains. Cool as the hands on her fevered forehead when she lay at home on a school day.
There was a black-and-white film made here in 1980, in which the protagonist lost his father when he was seven years old and was raised by his calm, gentle mother. (His father had been only twenty-nine when he met with disaster, climbing the Himalayas with a group of friends. His body was never found.) The son moved out of his mother’s house as soon as he was old enough, and lived by an incredibly strict code of ethics. Whenever he had to make a decision, he would see in his mind’s eye an oppressive landscape: fresh snow falling on the icebound Himalayas, like a whiteout inside his head. Each time, he made the choice that went hardest with himself, the choice that many others would have quailed at. In a period when corruption was rife, he alone refused to take bribes and for that he was ostracized, even physically attacked. In the end, he walked into a trap, was hounded out of his place of work, and returned home alone. There, allowing himself to become lost in thought, the peaks and ravines of that far mountain range filled up his field of vision. The very place where he could not go. The land of ice, in which his father’s frozen body was hidden, where humans were not suffered to tread.
In the distance, the surface of the water bulges upward. The winter sea mounts its approach, surging closer in. The wave reaches its greatest possible height and shatters in a spray of white. The shattered water slides back over the sandy shore.
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.
Each wave becomes dazzlingly white at the moment of its shattering. Farther out, the tranquil body of water ashes like the scales of innumerable fish. The glittering of multitudes is there. The shifting, stirring, tossing of multitudes. Nothing is eternal.
There is none of us whom life regards with any partiality. Sleet falls as she walks these streets, holding this knowledge inside her. Sleet that leaves cheeks and eyebrows heavy with moisture. Everything passes. She bears this remembrance—the knowledge that everything she has clung to will fall away from her and vanish—through the streets where the sleet is falling, that is neither rain nor snow, neither ice nor water, that dampens her eyebrows and streams from her forehead whether she stands still or hurries on, closes her eyes or opens them.
What’s a dog that’s a dog but doesn’t bark? She was a child when she first heard this riddle.
When, or from whom, she doesn’t remember now.
The summer when she was twenty-four, when she’d quit her first job and gone back to the house she’d grown up in, she saw a white dog in the neighbors’ yard. Previously, this had been the home of a vicious Tosa, originally bred as a fighting dog. It used to rush forward, stretching the rope as taut as it would go, and snap its jaws. All it needed was for the rope around its neck to be loosened or to snap for it to fly at you and sink its teeth into your flesh. Though she knew the dog was tied up, she still kept as far away from it as possible whenever she had to pass the gate, intimidated by its viciousness.
Chained up now in that Tosa’s place was a mongrel with perhaps a faint strain of Jindo blood. Its body was dotted with patches of bare flesh, pale pink coins amid the dull white of its fur. This dog neither barked nor even growled. When it first met her eye, it drew back, startled, the chain around its neck rasping over the cement floor. It was August, and the scorching sun was unrelenting. Perhaps because of the muggy heat, the road through the village was deserted. The silence was broken only by the chain’s harsh grating each time the dog inched back. At her slightest movement it startled afresh, pressed itself even farther to the floor, and scrabbled back, dragging the chain over the cement. Keeping its eyes fixed on her the whole time. Terror. It was terror that she read in those two black eyes.
That evening she asked about the dog. “It doesn’t even bark if it sees a stranger,” her mother said, “just cowers and trembles, so the owner’s thinking of selling it on again. What if a burglar came?”
The dog never lost its fear of her. Even on her last day at home, when it had had a full week to become used to her, it cringed close to the ground and jerked backward as soon as she appeared outside the gate. It twisted its head against its flank as though something was pressing against its windpipe. Though its tongue lolled out between its teeth, there was no audible panting. The only sound the dog could be said to produce was the low rasp of the chain against cement. Even the sight of her mother, a familiar face of several months’ acquaintance, would provoke this same startled reaction. Okay now, it’s okay. Her voice was soft and soothing as she walked unhurriedly on. Poor wretch, she muttered, clicking her tongue, it must have suffered a lot.
A dog that’s a dog but doesn’t bark? The lackluster answer to the riddle is fog. And so for her, the dog’s name became Fog. A large white dog that doesn’t bark. A dog that bore a physical resemblance to her childhood pet, now a hazy memory from the distant past.
That winter when she went down again to her family home, there was no Fog. Instead, she was greeted by a squat brown bulldog that snarled with great gusto.
What happened to that other dog?
Her mother shook her head.
The owner had it for sale the whole summer, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to part from it; then when the frost came and the temperature suddenly dropped, it died. It got sick and stopped touching its food, just lay there on its front . . . and the whole time, it didn’t make a single sound.