Ques­tions linger after Korean mas­sacre

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“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

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