- Toilet paper? Really?
- Why is it so quiet?
- How much did I drink last night?
- What day is it?
- Wait… what did Trump say again?
- How do I read this chart?
- How many hours did I sleep last night?
- Do I have a fever?
- Why does it feel so spooky?
- How much did I eat yesterday?
- Where’s my mask?
- When will this be over?
- How many peopled have died?
After you died I could not hold a funeral,
And so my life became a funeral.
Today, May 18, marks the fortieth anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising. Human Acts, by Han Kang, takes this massacre as the subject of her powerful and unforgettable novel.
First, some background: In October, 1979, the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee raised hopes for democracy in South Korea. Instead, the head of security apparatus, Major General Chun Dohwan, lead a coup. On May 17, 1980, he declared martial law.
In the southern city of Gwangju, students, many of them still in high school, lead peaceful protests.
The new strongman sent in special forces to crush the demonstration.
The paratroopers used boots and rifle butts at first. They switched to bayonets to slash and kill. They used rape to break and humiliate. They finally used automatic weapons.
The students, factory workers, and shopkeepers fell in bloody heaps. The soldiers piled the corpses in anonymous graves. But the resistance continued until May 27 when the army made a final push, massacring the resistants.
Afterwards, the government forces rounded up the surviving demonstrators and held them in prison for months, torturing them.
The official death count is 606. Other estimates range as high as 2,300.
But one death is one too many.
And that’s the strength and the terrible beauty of Han Kang’s novel, Human Acts. We learn the specific weight of death. She hardly ever shows the violence head on. Instead, we feel the consequences. We see the corpses rather than the cuts or the shots. We live through the grief, not the battles.
Each chapter relates the events of Gwangju through the perspective of a different character and at a different time. The spine, or heart of the book is a 14 year old boy, Dong ho, who is gunned down after helping sort the corpses of the fallen. From him, Han Kang radiates out to include the intellectuals, the idealists, the factory girls and the bereaved who also have their stories to tell. Each is related to the boy in some way, and to each other.
They’re stories of aftermaths. Of how you manage wounds and trauma. It recalls the Greek tragedies, especially Antigone. Fate looms. Violence boils just around the corner. Choices matter. The character acts, and then lives with the consequences of her decision. Implicit on every page is the dignity of the individual, the necessity of mourning, and the evil that runs just below the surface.
The novel reeks of sweat, rot, and smoke — you feel the blood trickling down your back, the stench of the corpses, the fragrance of cold rice and charcoal fires. She avoids the traps of sentimentality or sensationalizing the events themselves. Nor does she fall into easy philosophizing. The characters, in the face of overwhelming brutality may consider the nature of the soul or of humanity:
“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”
But Kang doesn’t allow us to dwell in abstractions, ever. The story moves back to the sting of a slap, or the bile rising after a drinking bout that tries, and fails, to erase the pain of tortures remembered.
The only flaw of the novel is that it assumes that you know about the events in Gwangju. The translator provides a helpful introduction. But the drivers of the dictatorship, the broader social issues and the history that fed into the massacre aren’t in the book. In cinematic terms, it’s a story made of close-ups.
The translation itself reads well, always simple, clear, and evocative.
Human Acts brilliantly evokes the memory and the bravery of the people who fought against oppression — and the consequences of their courage.
I found these resources about Gwangju and the novel very helpful:
The Gwangju Massacre (an overview at ThoughtCo)
Slide show about “Marching for Our Beloved”
(This protest song was banned, and singing it would land you in prison)
And thank you to E., who gave me the book and introduced me to this tragic chapter of Korean history.
Two boys, about nine or so, play in the backyard next to my house. They bounce on a trampoline and make up adventures for themselves.
A couple of weeks ago, they planned attacks on North Korea using jet propulsion packs. (Why North Korea, I don’t know. When I was a kid, we battled Nazis.)
Today, the mission changed: They’re delivering ventilators to New York City.
That’s the new word of the day: doomscrolling.
Definition on Urban Dictionary, 24 March 2020: “Obsessively reading social media posts about how utterly fucked we are.”
via Warren Ellis
We have 38 confirmed Covid-19 cases today in Boulder. That number makes the measures taken so far seem melodramatic and disproportionate. But, we have the tragic example of Italy to learn from.
Families crowd the parks. Moms, dads, and the kids march along, the parents a bit haggard, the children aimless and disorderly, veering off to bang sticks or chase geese. As you approach, the adults will belt out a hearty hello, but shy away to maintain the proper distance.
Older couples stride with purpose. They’ve read the same articles I have about boosting the immune system with sunshine and fresh air, and they seem determined to charge every single cell with as much health as possible.
By contrast, the Pearl Street Mall is dead. On a weekend afternoon, it’s usually crowded with tourists, families, buskers, balloon blowers, green-haired millennials, and hipsters of every stripe. Now only a few people stroll along the bricks.
Without people in front of them, the buildings look unfamiliar. Without the weekend crowds, the homeless seem to have taken over the mall. It’s about one-to-one, homeless to housed.
Only a few businesses are open. A Mexican restaurant offers takeouts at the windows. So does a pizza place. A candy shop and a poster store still welcome customers. Every other store is shut with variations of the same notice taped to the door.
Two bars blast boomer-era rock over empty terraces. It makes things more melancholy than you’d think. Like an off season resort, barren but projecting cheerfulness.
All around, it’s oddly quiet. Traffic noise has dwindled to nearly nothing. As a friend said, it’s like the quiet of a snow day when everyone just stays home.
Thanksgiving is the best holiday. It’s based on a cardinal virtue — gratitude — and expressed with a deadly vice — gluttony. What could be better?
The other holidays have been largely corrupted by overkill and greed. But it’s hard to commercialize a day given over to a set menu, shared with friends and family and blessed by low expectations. You cook. You give thanks. You eat. You can’t sell much more than fancier versions of a basic set of ingredients.
My memories of Thanksgiving are mostly warm and tinted with pumpkin-colored hues, as you’d hope. My family didn’t have the clichéd drunken uncles or political battles. This was despite having a divided group of people. One of my grandmothers believed FDR was Satan incarnate. The other revered him. For her, Eleanor Roosevelt was a saint.
Both of them shared exquisite manners — the kind of courtesy that would nip off any hot-headed debate in the bud. As a snotty teenager, I’d try to goad my conservative grandmother, but she mostly did not take the bait.
One Thanksgiving during my college years yielded a small epiphany. My parents liked to invite strays over to join us. That year, two French students took their places at the groaning table for their first, true, red-blooded, full-on American Thanksgiving.
Thierry had hazel eyes and olive skin, and, then, thick, dark hair. His Gallic good looks were complimented by his purring, heavily accented baritone voice. Think of Louis Jourdan’s, but pitched about an octave lower.
Now, Theirry hadn’t struck me as any kind of dreamboat French dude. He was eccentric and maladroit, an engineering student who talked about Napoleon too often, who played obscure operas by Handel, who drank too much and danced by himself in clubs. A fascinating character, but awkward and without a girlfriend.
Yet, when Thierry sashayed into my parent’s house and presented my mother with a bouquet as big as his torso, as well as a magnum of champagne, then bowed and murmured a thank you for the invitation . . . .
Three women swooned. My aunt, my mother, and my grandmother flushed, blossomed, and fluttered. I’d never seen any of them act that way, and, frankly, it grossed me out a little. My mother seated Thierry between herself and my aunt. I’d never seen Aunt Helen as animated and quick to laugh.
And I realized: my aunt, my mother, and even my grandmother were actual people. Women. Women who had pulses that could be fluttered. Women who liked masculine attention.
In my monumental and adolescent self-absorption, I’d failed to notice this simple and obvious fact. It hadn’t occurred to me that they had lives outside the role they played in my life. Sure, I’d experience that strange feeling you have when my parents talked about their youths, the time before I showed up.
To know them as flesh and blood, as individuals with desires and emotions outside of my ken, well, that was a revelation. Admittedly, late. But it’s an insight I’m grateful for.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and to the families in your lives.
And thank you for visiting.