At the beginning of 2015, Han Kang was a fairly unknown Korean writer, with her first translation into English about to be published. Moving forward a year, The Vegetarian is a huge success, appearing on many end-of-year lists, and with an American release imminent, the exposure is unlikely to go away soon (see, for example, this recent interview in The Guardian). In fact, her star is likely to rise further with the release of her follow-up novel in the UK. Just as well-written, and fascinating, as her first work in English, this one is slightly less whimsical and allegorical than its predecessor. Sadly, it is also far more disturbing, a book which looks at human nature and what happens when it is put to the test.
Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books) takes us to the Korean city of Gwangju in May 1980 where, after a bloody government crackdown on a mass demonstration, the army has temporarily left the city. As civilian militias led by students and schoolboys draw up futile plans to defend their city from more carnage, people roam the streets looking for the missing and the dead. Dong-ho, a middle-school student, is searching for his friend Jeong-dae, having been unable to retrieve his friend’s body after he was gunned down in broad daylight. Despite his tender years, he ends up helping to organise the dead, taking down details and attaching numbers to the unidentified victims of the military’s cruelty.
With the day drawing to a close, and the army’s return imminent, all those who care for him (high-school girl Eun-sook, university student Seon-ju, militia organiser Jin-su and Dong-ho’s poor mother) urge the young boy to go home before it is too late. Sadly, none of them succeed in making him leave, a decision which will see him cut down before his life has really begun. But that is merely one part of the story. As the novel progresses, we are told other sides of the tale, with Dong-ho’s (and Gwangju’s) fate elaborated upon by those who survived the horror – and some who didn’t…
The Gwangju Uprising (or Massacre, depending on your viewpoint) is an incredible story, and one I had never even heard of a year or so ago, a fact I find hard to believe now. The incident is still controversial today, a modern, developed state at war with one of its own cities, ready to wipe it out rather than give in to what the government saw as leftist sedition. In basing her novel here, Han, a native of Gwangju who moved to Seoul as a child, uses the incident as the background to an astonishing, and confronting, introduction to the best and worst human nature has to offer. A tale in seven parts, it examines how people react in stressful times, and the effects these events have on their future.
In her comments on the book, Han is firm in her belief that the novel, while using Gwangju as a base, is just as much about the way people in general behave, hence the choice of the title Human Acts for the translation. There are several examples of focusing on the human in us: Jeong-dae’s memories of his sister; the childhood games he played with Dong-ho; the heroism of students and workers in the city; and the way the pro-democracy movement lifted individuals above themselves:
Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again. (p.122)
In these heady moments, there is a feeling that the whole can truly be greater than the sum of its parts, a crowd of people working together to achieve great things.
Sadly, though, this is just as true for the darker side of life, and Human Acts shows us all too well how people’s behaviour can also sicken and horrify. As people in Gwangju try to help the wounded, they are cut down by snipers. Children surrendering to government troops are gunned down in cold blood. Women and children are beaten mercilessly by soldiers, whose orders originate from the very highest levels of power:
You never forgot the face of the plain-clothes policeman who had stamped on you. You never forgot that the government actively trained and supported the strike-breakers, that at the peak of this pyramid of violence stood President Park Chung-hee himself, an army general who has seized power through a military coup. (p.165)
The casual beatings of women, using the excuse of their being red sympathisers to justify the behaviour, is unheard of in Korean culture. The women on the receiving end are almost more shocked by the assault on their status as young women as by the beatings themselves.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Human Acts, though, is the aftermath of the intervention. After the initial scene setting up the return of the military to the city, and the poignant second section in which the callous treatment of the victim’s corpses is described by the soul of one of the dead, Han slowly moves us forward in time, inching year by year into the future, one which, for many of the characters, holds little hope of closure. We meet Eun-sook five years on, recovering from seven brutal slaps to the face for withholding information she doesn’t have. Another five years sees a prisoner telling the story of his torture in prison and his relationship with the unfortunate Jin-su. Fast forward to 2002, and Seon-ju has her turn at remembering the past, now isolated (mainly by choice) and documenting the slow deaths of others let down by Korean society. Finally, we arrive in 2010, where Dong-ho’s mother is still haunted by the past, never forgetting, never forgiving.
These people, just as much as those who fell in the streets in May 1980, are victims of the Gwangju massacre, shattered and broken, their lives destroyed. Emotionally they are withdrawn, their failed relationships the result of being unable to bear intimacy after the soldiers’ attacks on their bodies. Dreams of improving their lives by study are just that – with the universities controlled by the regime, many have no choice but to stay away. Some attempt to bury themselves in work, but these are jobs with no future. Blacklisted by the government, they are stuck in dead-end jobs, hounded from one place to the next. Their lives are connected by their shared experiences and trauma, yet their pain leaves them unable to touch each other, a situation foreshadowed, ironically enough, in the chapter with the souls. Each senses the other souls around them, unable to connect…
As was the case with The Vegetarian, Deborah Smith has done an excellent job of sustaining the writer’s slightly withdrawn approach to an emotional subject, showing again that having a sympathetic translator with a skill for writing in English is more important than finding one who knows the source culture intimately. Smith also contributes a short introduction detailing the background and importance of the events of May 1980 as well as commenting on some of the translation issues. On rereading the book, I was able to pay closer attention to the translator’s treatment of the part featuring Dong-ho’s mother, in which the thick Gwangju dialect is rendered in a light, cheery Northern English accent (as I read it to myself, memories of my years living in Leeds helped me find her voice…). The obvious sympathy Smith has with Han and her story has helped in the development of the English version.
Another small translation issue involves the title, and Smith again discusses this in a short essay available at Asymptote. The original Korean title was Sonyeon-i Onda, which could be literally translated as ‘the young boy is coming’, a clumsy and unfortunate expression in English. After rejecting several variations on this, the team working on the translation eventually settled on Human Acts, a title which brings out the importance of the human nature of the novel. However, the original title is also important. Over the course of the survivors’ accounts, Dong-ho gradually comes into focus, approaching us through the grief of the others. In the performance of a play that Eun-sook helped to publish, she hears the following lines:
After you died I could not hold a funeral,
And so my life became a funeral (p.105)
Immediately she thinks of Dong-ho, and this appears to be the motto of all those who feel guilt at the boy’s death.
Han is not the only writer, or even the first, to tackle the theme of Gwangju. Ch’oe Yun’s novella There a Petal Silently Falls takes a similar polyphonic approach, examining the fate of an unnamed girl from several viewpoints. Hwang Sok-yong’s lengthy novel The Old Garden focuses instead on a later period, with descriptions of prison life and the long-term effects on survivors. However, Han ties all these themes together, the seven parts of the novel working as a whole to tell the story of the massacre. They also slowly, piece by piece, complete the picture of Dong-ho (which, appropriately, is represented by the school photo the writer sees in the final section), while gradually constructing a fuller picture of the wider societal impacts.
For Han, Human Acts is a rather personal work, and in the final part of the story, in which a writer returns to Gwangju, the line between fiction and real life is, at best, slightly blurred. In the best traditions of Korean (and Japanese) fiction, the writer expresses her own feelings through a literary alter-ego, one only slightly removed from the real thing. This return to Gwangju, taking place in 2013, is perhaps prompted by the recent rise to power of the new Korean President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the dictator who initiated the series of crack-downs culminating in the Gwangju uprising.
On the writer’s return, Gwangju is a very different city; many of the buildings are gone, the bullet holes have mostly disappeared, crime scenes have been painted over. However, the memories, the memories remain:
There were soldiers who were especially cruel.
When I first started poring over the documents, what had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no even demanded such displays of brutality. (p.214)
These wounds are still fresh in the minds and hearts of the people of Gwanju, and Park’s election is tantamount to ripping the plasters off those wounds, callously poking cruel fingers between the stitches. Seen in that light, then, Han’s book is less an attempt to understand the past than a work of documentation. Whatever happens, however successful Korea becomes, the voice of the survivors of Gwangju will always be heard – we will not forget…