Questions linger after Korean massacre
“Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? ... To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered — is this the essential fate of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?” Such questions arrest the reader halfway through Han Kang’s Human Acts, a bold yet sombre novel about the aftermath of South Korea’s Gwangju uprising. In May 1980, during a protest against government repression, students from Jeonnam University were clubbed, bayoneted or shot to death by government troops. The citizens of Gwangju soon took up arms in solidarity, swelling the protesters to 10,000. After the nine-day military crackdown, an estimated 606 people were dead.
When the novel opens, 15-year old Dong-ho is helping to identify the dead protesters who were dragged from the streets and into a gymnasium hall. As in her acclaimed debut, The Vegetarian, Kang does not recoil from the visceral details of the suffering human body. She asks us to intensely notice an atrocity her government would prefer us to forget. We soon realise that, like the families filing into the hall, Dong-ho is searching for one of the dead. Just hours before, his friend Jeong-dae was gunned down in front of him. Later, at a brief memorial service, the coffins are draped with the Taegukgi — the South Korean flag — and the national anthem is sung.
“Why would you sing the national anthem for people who had been killed by soldiers?” Dong-ho wonders. “As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.” Such hypocrisies abound under the dictatorship of army general Chun Doo-hwan. Kang’s style, adeptly translated by Deborah Smith, juxtaposes stark narration with heightened prose on the nature of suffering, courage, resistance and death.
While less rigorously composed than The Vegetarian, Human Acts is equally fierce in its exploration of human endurance. Six interlinked characters relay this fractured story. Among them is the deceased Jeong-dae, whose voice is literally disembodied, becoming a “soulself”, as Kang calls it, that surveys the dead and wonders, “Without bodies, how would we know each other? Would I still recognise my sister as a shadow?”
When his friend was shot, Dong-ho ran for cover. Afflicted with survivor guilt, his decision to help identify the dead is a form of atonement. “Even if it had been one of your brothers, your father, your mother, still you would have run away,” he says in a second-person narration that enfolds himself and the reader. “There will be no forgiveness. Least of all for me.”
Kang’s interest in testimony as a form of shared responsibility is built into the novel’s shifting points of view and dislocated narrative. By juxtaposing six perspectives, Kang creates both a people’s history and a group memorial to the events of 1980. These accounts include: the story of the seven slaps received by an editor undergoing political censorship, a prisoner coerced to recall his part in the uprising for a pro- fessor conducting a “psychological and the recollections of a “factory once fought for labour rights.
When Kim Eun-sook, the editor, receives her manuscript from the censor’s office, it is so swollen from the ink used to black out entire pages that it looks like it has been burned: autopsy”, girl” who She recalls sentences roughly darned and patched, places where the forms of words can just about be made out in paragraphs which had been otherwise expunged. You. I. That. Perhaps. Precisely. Everything. You. Why … A little more. Vaguely. Why did you. Remember?
Recollected, these words sound like a plaintive appeal to the censor: why did you? Excised from the text they form the dismayed editor’s internal monologue, then pass into memory.
When we meet Kim Eun-sook it’s unclear who administered the “seven slaps” that organise her account. Gradually we learn of “the man” who struck her and the interrogation room where the assault occurred. By withholding the specifics that might pin down an opening scene, Kang evokes her characters’ uncertain sense of reality.
This haziness is also characteristic of testimony, which is rarely flowing or chronological but rather a personal, idiosyncratic narrative