(translated by Deborah Smith)
This is a brutal book. As it needs to be.
In 1980, Gwangju, South Korea a student uprising was viciously, murderously suppressed by the military police. The Wikipedia entry for this episode begins:
“The uprising began after local Chonnam University students who were demonstrating against the martial law government were fired upon, killed, raped and beaten by government troops. Some Gwangju citizens took up arms, raiding local police stations and armouries, and were able to take control of large sections of the city before soldiers re-entered the city and put down the uprising. At the time, the South Korean government reported estimates of around 170 people killed, but other estimates have measured 600 to 2,300 people killed.”
Han King lived the first few years of her life in Gwangju before her family moved to Seoul but it is clear that the atrocity looms large in her psyche, and that of most of the population. According to notes, it came to be a defining moment when the people moved from “accepting” (perhaps acquiescing is better) to the military dictatorships and demanded a democratically elected and accountable government.
Described as a novel, Human Acts is one of those “based on real-life events” books, that can be exhilarating but requires a balance so that the ‘greater’ story is not lost beneath the story-teller’s art – this book hits that balance perfectly. The story follows the death of a young boy, Kang Dong-ho. Each chapter is in the voice of someone who knew him or knew of him, in different ways: a classmate, work colleague, friend. The book follows them through the bombed out, burnt out wreckage of buildings, searching piles of corpses, opening up the tens of body bags in makeshift mortuaries.
A disembodied spirit, seeks its abandoned body.
The narrative shifts backwards and forwards through time, from the events to the present day (when written: 2014). One narrator is unable to bear their grief, and commits suicide; another is a young woman who withstood dreadful sexual violence in captivity. They all encounter denial, disbelief and threats of further violence. The final chapter – posted as an epilogue – is in the voice of the author and describes her painstaking research that enabled her to produce such a work, as well as outlining what she saw as her duty to the events and the murdered fellow citizens.
Whatever its correct categorisation, it is undeniably sobering, brilliant and heartbreaking.