Buried in the middle of Han Kang’s Human Acts is a play that, like Kang’s book, dramatises the democratic uprisings in Gwangju, South Korea, and their merciless suppression. The play, performed in 1985, five years after the massacres of May 1980, was almost entirely erased by the government’s censors, but the director would not be intimidated, and performed his play in silence. A girl sits in the audience and, having typed-up the now-censored play for publication, she can hear the each of the erased lines in her head. There is a stark division between the internal and the external: the government can attack, score through, and erase the body of the text (the offending pages are ‘thrown onto a fire and left to blacken […] reduced to little more than a lump of coal’) but the memories and the ideas persist in the mind.
This scene is something of a mise-en-abyme, a foil for the rest of the novel; emblematic of one of Han Kang’s themes, which is forever resurfacing. There is, for Kang, a complex relationship between the body and the soul. The body is a container, a piece of meat; the soul a ‘fluttering winged thing’. This is not necessarily a consolation during those passages when the body undergoes brutal torture at the hands of soldiers or interrogators: the soul, like the body, is fragile, and can shatter (‘like glass’). But it does make Human Acts much more than an account of the most appalling of acts; it is also a haunting, circling essay on what it is to be in a human body.
The setting is this: in May 1980, the South Korean Army were provided with eight hundred thousand rounds of ammunition and sent into Gwangju, a city of four hundred thousand people, to bring to an end ten days of democratic protest and resistance with as much violence and finality as was possible. Kang, who grew up in Gwangju in the years before the uprising, enters the novel as narrator in the seventh and final chapter to explain her personal relationship to these events. Swathes of the narration are in the second person, directly addressing a fifteen-year-old boy, Dong-ho, whom we meet in the first pages as he helps to process and identify the bodies of the murdered between clashes with government troops.
It cannot be ignored that this book is uncompromisingly harrowing. But somehow – perhaps because the most horrific acts are not shied away from, but instead described with cold, matter-of-fact precision and vividness – it is never oppressively dark and is always (incredibly) a pleasure to read. The translator Deborah Smith – who also supplies a beautifully concise, insightful introduction – deserves as much credit for this as Kang. Figurative language appears throughout the novel (the ‘fabric of sleep’ wears thin; the ‘curtain of night’ flutters at its edges; memories loom out of ‘dusk’s course weave’), yet the marriage of such poetic turns of phrase to such unimaginable atrocities does not feel forced.
‘Survivor’s guilt’ is both the genesis of this novel and one of its recurring themes. ‘How had the seasons kept on turning for me, when time had stopped forever for him that May?’ asks Kang, in her own voice. ‘These eyes that once beheld you’, laments a mother, ‘became a shrine’ (this image is typical of the book’s focus on seeing and eyes – ‘the souls of the departed are watching us, their eyes wide open’). There is repeated outrage that life can continue so casually after such an atrocity. Kang worries that she has started her attempt to document the massacre ‘too late’, that the majority of the gingko trees which bore ‘mute witness’ to the bloodshed are already uprooted. A girl telephones the Provincial Office daily to complain that the public fountain has been switched back on, for she sees this sign of normality as an insult to the murdered. The problem of how and why survivors have a responsibility to bear witness is perennial. A torture survivor carries a dictaphone around in her rucksack, putting off an academic’s request to set her story on tape, and its weight makes the straps cut into her shoulders, a literal and metaphorical burden.
This is a brave and profoundly affecting book and it deserves to be read. It is structurally ambitious and highly original in its use of narrative voice and its chronology. The past endlessly resurfaces in the present: ‘Uprisings’, one of Deborah Smith’s working titles for the translation, would have made this flotsam-floating of remembered ordeals more overt. But the decision by translator and publisher to title the English version of the book ‘Human Acts’ well encapsulates the novel’s ponderous passivity. Kang asks, rather than answers, troubling questions. What extremes of hurting and being hurt can the human animal achieve or endure? And just how fragile or resilient is the soul within the body, the glass vessel, the ‘fluttering winged thing’?
By Robert Hawkins
Human Acts by Han Kang, Portobello, £12.99