The events at the centre of Han Kang’s latest novel Human Acts (translated once again by Deborah Smith)– the murder and torture of its citizens by a repressive regime – are so ubiquitous that the first question for a writer is how to make the reader see them as new and other, to provoke both reaction and reflection. That Han Kang’s talent lies precisely in making the world look different, or making us look differently at the world, is obvious from her first novel The Vegetarian, though here the task is somehow greater, more demanding. The events of 1980 in Gwangju are clearly an important, if obscured, part of Korean history, and well within living memory. From its title onwards, however, Human Acts more than meets that challenge.
In dealing with complex historical events, it may seem a mistake for the author to plunge us straight into the narrative, but Han is successful because she is primarily concerned with character, which she has the ability to create through voice within a page or two. (In fact, the events of 1980 will only be revealed in part, and in parts, because Han’s focus from the start is on the human element rather than historical documentation, which is not to say it isn’t a powerful testimony to the victims). The first voice we meet is second person, identifying us with Dong-ho, a high school student who came to look for the body of a friend, Jeong-dae, after the initial confrontation between protestors and soldiers, and has stayed “just lending a hand with a couple of things” where the corpses of are being kept. Also there are two young women, Eun-sook and Seon-ju: the victims of this massacre will be little more than children.
Jeong-dae narrates the second section, but his voice is that of the dead:
“The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.”
Though these narratives originate from 1980, our next chapter is dated 1985, indicating that we will move through time to the present with an epilogue, focusing on Han herself, set in 2013. These chapters will reveal more detail of what occurred in 1980, but also emphasise that Han is concerned as much with the after effects as with the events of those few days. In 1985 Eun-sook is an editor, and her chapter, as well as providing evidence of continued repression, asks whether anything can be the same again, both for the victims and for the country. We see this when, shortly after the uprising, she phones the Provincial Office complaints department:
“I’ve just seen water coming out of the fountain and I don’t think it should be allowed… What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal.”
The chapter itself tells of seven slaps that Eun-sook has suffered when being questioned about the whereabouts of the translator of a banned book, structured around “the process of forgetting the seven slaps.” Forgetting is something that Eun-sook has found difficult, despite her mother’s advice:
“Just forget about what happened, then you can go off to university like everyone else, earn a living, meet nice people…and live, just live.”
Instead Eun-sook feels:
“After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life becomes a funeral”
in the words of the poem which ends the chapter.
The non-fiction book which Eun-sook wishes to publish tackles issues at the heart of Han’s novel:
“Certain crowds do not blench at the prospect of looting, murder and rape, while on the other hand, others display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty achieving as individuals.”
The novel displays both the barbarism and cruelty of the soldiers and the self-sacrifice of the protestors. Which is human? “Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel?” we are asked at one point. Yet in the same chapter, in prison, undergoing regular torture, when two prisoners fight over the food they must share, another pushes between them: “D-don’t do that.” In acting this way they become less than human, exactly what their torturers want:
“We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.”
This contrasts later with labour activist Seong-hee’s favourite saying, “We are noble,” as we are repeatedly made to consider what it does, in fact, mean to be human.
Human Acts, if anything, is an even better novel than The Vegetarian, as Han turns her eye from the person to the people. It’s an astonishing high-wire performance between horror and hope, asking uncomfortable questions about who we really are, sure to become a classic of its kind.