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)
An Interview with Han Kang
An Eyewitness Account of the Gwangju Massacre
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.