Han Kang’s writing is haunting and subtle, but also bold enough to confront the most disturbing aspects of of our humanity. She is just the sort of writer who is able to do justice to all the emotions involved in writing about a national tragedy like the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a better way of portraying these events than what she chooses: the perspectives of seven different people constructed with a focus on the long term effects of the events of the summer of 1980 over the course of nearly 25 years. The narrators who survive may be alive, but they can’t be said to be living well, if living is even the right term.
Not having had any sense of Korean history before reading Human Acts, I did a little online research to understand (in basic terms at least) how the Gwangju Uprising came about. In 1979, the dictator then in power, Park Chung-Hee, was assassinated, leaving political control of the country basically up for grabs. Under Park, pro-democracy movements, largely centered in universities, were stifled through expulsion of their proponents from the institutions where they studied and taught. These movements recommenced following the assassination, but this was not the only area of agitation. A military coup soon took place, resulting in Major General Chun Doo-Hwan taking control of the country and instating martial law. A May 15th student protest against this took place in Seoul and resulted in an extension of martial law to the provinces and the closure of the universities. This extension of martial law was what Kang’s characters were protesting on 18 May in Gwangju.
The novel begins after the first of the attacks on the students, consisting of rounds being fired into the crowd of protesters, have taken place. Our first narrator and arguably the central character of the novel, Dong-ho, waits amongst the dead at the municipal gymnasium. More and more bodies keep coming. The state of the bodies is described in great detail – injuries as well as stage of decomposition. Dong-ho is certain his friend, who was shot in front of him, will arrive. He looks carefully at every body. He is guilt-ridden for having run away when his friend collapsed in a spray of gunfire. Dong-ho haunts almost all of the other characters in the book. He is the innocent boy who shouldn’t have stayed with the older students when the army arrived to violently suppress the uprising for good.
Other characters include the soul of Dong-ho’s friend, which is attached to his rotting corpse until the soldiers burn his body. We follow the struggle of an editor who is beaten by the police for working on a manuscript about the events of the summer of 1980. We learn how those who survived the suppression of the uprising were taken to prison and tortured. ‘The Prisoner’ never recovers and neither does anyone else he knew from the prison, or at least that is what the research of an academic into the events of the uprising suggest. A factory girl who took part in the protests grapples with intrusive memories of her work with other protesters as well as being beaten and raped in the suppression. She refuses to provide testimony for the researcher.
The narratives of these characters lead up to the account from ‘The Mother’, who is steadily losing her grip on reality as she approaches old age. Her surviving sons blame each other for the death of their brother and its devastating effect on their mother. Following Dong-ho’s death, she takes part in protesting and organizing, but when his body is moved – by hand, by the family – she experiences such an intense emotional reaction that she never recovers. In the present of the narrative she believes she catches glimpses of Dong-ho and tries to follow him. One of the things I really like about this novel is that Kang devotes a lot of time to detailing the female experience of these events: the editor is a female subordinate who is presumably delivered up to the police by her older male colleague; the factory girl is brutalized by soldiers far more socially and physically powerful than her; the mother is crushed by the death of her son.
Finally, we have the epilogue by ‘The Writer’, an autobiographical narrative that describes Kang’s research for the novel. Although she doesn’t directly raise this issue, her description of the effect of the Gwangju uprising on her as a researcher and as someone who was aware of the events from a distance, evokes a sense of the type of empathy needed to create a piece of fiction like this. The more intense the emotional experience of the events, the more intense the demands on the writer and the reader. I’ve recently been interested in thinking about fiction as a mode of teaching empathy. This book is a perfect example. It draws the reader right into the interior worlds of people who are dealing with the most base, disturbing human acts that evoke the most base, disturbing reactions of self-preservation or self-defense or crushing submission.
Given the focus on the difficulty of researching the Gwangju Uprising for the writer, I can’t help but point to what must have been a similar struggle for the translator, Deborah Smith. The use of you, especially in the first chapter, is unsettling, interesting and presumably both accusational and universal, though I don’t know enough about Korean to be able to judge exactly. Smith notes in the introduction that there are different dialects in different chapters with the mother’s narrative being particularly challenging and virtually impossible to replicate. Smith writes that she used a ‘non-specific colloquialism’ but that she ‘did smuggle the tiniest bit of Yorkshire in’. Again, this is a story of being in a single person’s interior world, which can never exactly be conveyed to others.
Graves of May 18th National Cemetery, Gwangju, Jeollanam-do, South Korea. Reproduced under a CC license.