Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian was one of last year’s surprise success stories. The first of the Korean novelist’s works to be translated into English, also by the talented Deborah Smith, it told the strange, unsettling story of an otherwise ordinary and dutiful housewife’s rebellion against the status quo as she sought a more “plant-like” existence.
This subversion, although strongly affecting those close to her, inspiring responses from disgust to desire, is ultimately an act of individual insurgence, whereas in Human Acts, Han turns her attention to collective resistance: the Gwangju uprising of May 1980.
The strange dreamlike quality showcased in The Vegetarian is here transformed into the graphic depiction of an all-too-real nightmare.
As Smith explains in her informative introduction, “In early 1980, South Korea was a heap of dry tinder waiting for a spark.” Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who had assumed power in 1961, had been assassinated, and his “protégé” Chun Doo-hwan, “another army general with firm ideas on how a people should be governed”, was now in control.
Martial law was in place across the entire country, universities closed, political activity banned and the freedom of the press completely curtailed.
The southern city of Gwangju became the site of mass demonstrations as students and workers came together to oppose the regime, the tragic result of which was a massive bloodbath as police, and then paratroopers, were sent in to suppress the protesters.
The army was provided with 800,000 rounds of ammunition in a city the population of which was a mere 400,000. As one of the characters points out, that’s “the means to drive a bullet into the body of every person in the city twice over”.
The scale and horror of the atrocity is immediately brought home in the opening chapter. Before she concerns herself with the stories of various individuals, Han first describes the masses.
Rows of bodies pile up in a municipal gymnasium, the descriptions of which are necessarily visceral, but not sensationalist: the “putrid stink” of decomposing flesh, a slight teenager now “bloated to the size of a grown man”, her face slashed nearly beyond recognition.
The second chapter compounds this horror as we follow the now detached soul of a murdered teenage boy as he watches his and other corpses stacked up in the back of a truck, “that festering flesh now fused into a single mass, like the rotting carcass of some many-legged monster”.
Faintly reminiscent of scenes in The Vegetarian, here Han focuses on feelings of shame and disgust associated with the corporeal: taking in this lifeless mass of “meat”, the dead boy’s soul is suddenly “filled with hatred” for his own body.
As the final epilogue chapter explains, Han decided to write Human Acts after learning about Dong-ho, the 15-year-old boy who lived in the Gwangju house her family left when they moved to Seoul when Han was nine, shortly before the uprisings.
Dong-ho begins the book searching for the body of his friend among the corpses, but is soon gunned down himself.
As well as commemorating the lives of those who perished – “Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again,” says Dong-ho’s brother when Han meets with him – it’s also a testament to those who survived, though Han is clever enough not to assume she’s dealing with simple, straightforward catharsis by bearing witness.
These survivors are the living dead, many unable or unwilling to tell their stories. “Would you have been able to string together a continuous thread of words, silences, coughs and hesitations,” one asks herself 22 years after-the-fact, “its warp and weft somehow containing all that you wanted to say?”
The abiding message is that “some memories never heal”, they’re as debilitating as the physical scars of torture, the description of which made my skin crawl: pain so prolonged and heightened, and violations so intimate, the victim who likens the after-effects to that of radiation poisoning – “Even if the victim dies, even if their body is cremated, leaving nothing but the charred remains of bone, that substance cannot be obliterated” – captures the terror most acutely.
By its very existence Human Acts is an important and necessary book, but without Han’s astonishing penmanship I doubt it would have been so devastating and vital a work of literature.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.
Source: art & life