Reviewed by Kalau Almony
The Korea of Han Kang’s Human Acts is not the Korea of the war or the vivid neon country of K-Pop. It is a vision of the Korea that existed somewhere between the two, where years of military dictatorship are coming to a head. It’s also a vision of the Korea that lies outside the metropolis of Seoul. Deborah Smith’s translation is an unparalleled work in English not only for its technical prowess, but also for offering a portrayal of a piece of Korean history almost unknown to western audiences.
Kang’s Human Acts marks a new literary vision of the Gwangju Uprising that strays far from the stories of “Shoot-outs, heroism, [and] David and Goliath” that Smith claims dominate previous portrayals (2). The historical events are as follows: On May 18, 1980 students gathered in the city of Gwangju to protest the martial law imposed by General Chun Doo-hwan, de facto leader of Korea. Workers joined in, and by the end of the day thousands were marching in the city. Paratroopers were sent in and suppressed the protesters with clubs, bayonets, and gunfire. This initial act of violence spurred further protesters to join. By the 21st, the people of Gwangju had managed to turn the military away, but they responded by blockading the city and negotiations broke down. In the early morning of May 27th, the army stormed the city again, destroying the civil militias and putting a bloody end to the uprising. The official count puts the death toll for this week and a half at just under two hundred, but other estimates claim between one and two thousand died.
While Human Acts begins on May 26th, the day before the final military strike, the story stretches both to the brutal calm of daily life before May 18th and to the days of pain that continued long after the uprising was over. The book is divided into six parts, each narrated by a different character. Each section is powerful in its own right, but the true force of the book comes from the weaving together of shared experiences and memories. Even the most personal of details come to feel part of a greater shared experience of trauma. The first section, “The Boy,” is narrated in a powerful second-person that feels as though it may be even more gripping in English for the geographical, historical, and linguistic transformations forced on the reader, who is immediately thrust into the body of a fourteen-year-old boy, Dong-Ho. He volunteers to help process the bodies of the dead housed in a gymnasium:
You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench. It’s the middle of the day, but the dim interior is more like evening’s dusky half-light. The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of the thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins. Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly (11).
This focus on bodies grounds the story in a logistics of tragedy. Even dead bodies must be kept in order. There’s an absurdity to this scene—a fourteen-year-old managing corpses stored in a public gym—but it never makes one want to laugh. Instead, it drives home the absolute brutality of the situation, and the fact that though we may in one sense be able to marshal some understanding of this moment in history by counting the dead, the actual violence cuts much deeper.
The processing of bodies is not always carried out so neatly. We learn in the second section, narrated by Dong-ho’s now-deceased friend Jeong-dae that the military for their part haphazardly pile corpses into trucks and stack them somewhere outside the city. This stack of bodies takes on a monstrous quality: “When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it” (52). The potent image suggests not only the dehumanization of these people by military rule, but also their potential to fight back. Ultimately though, when the military runs out of space, they set these stacks of corpses on fire and watch them burn.
In her introduction, Smith notes that these bodies are “both a logistical and an ontological dilemma. The alternation in the original between words whose meanings shade from ‘corpse’ or ‘dead body’ to ‘dead person’ or simply ‘body’ reflects a status of uncertainty” (2). This uncertainty extends to living bodies as well. Each of the following four sections, narrated at a separate point several years after the uprising by a different character, has its own take on the body. We see bodies silenced in “The Editor,” narrated by Eun-sook who worked with Dong-ho processing the dead; bodies stripped of free will, allowed only to experience pain in “The Prisoner”; bodies working through all exhaustion and brutalization in “The Factory Girl”; even bodies of the old, still living with the weight of the tragedy of 1980 in “The Boy’s Mother.” The uncertainty lingers not just on questions of who is dead or how many are dead, but also how the living can go on with their lives, how they can organize themselves to do what they must, how they just manage to support the weight of the brutality they’ve experienced.
Smith brilliantly captures each of these straining voices and their attendant vocabularies, while letting glimmers of Korean sparkle through. The flag is always the Taegukgi. The factory girls study hanja. A character’s hunched back is even described as the shape of a Korean character. And this all feels vivid and appropriate in the world Smith shapes for us with her attentive prose. Even the strange second-person narration of the first and fourth sections never feels forced, just unconventional and exciting.
The variety of narrative positions offers several perspectives on the Gwangju Uprising, without even a hint of the urge to totalize. There is no focal point or experience that tells us the truth of it all. Instead the narratives work together to illustrate just how inexplicable these acts of violence are. No matter whom you ask, there is no “true story” to be told. Thus it may seem somewhat paradoxical when I say what holds these pieces together is the way they work as a shared act of remembering. Each section is alternately riveting, gruesome, and affecting on its own, and even when the sections seem to conflict, there is a sense of cohesion in discord.
Early in the novel Dong-ho asks, “Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them,” and is told by Eun-sook that the generals ruling the military are rebels. He contemplates her answer while listening as several different groups of people sing the national anthem at multiple simultaneous funerals. The anthem “rang out like a circular refrain, one verse clashing with another against the constant background of weeping, and you listened with bated breath to the subtle dissonance this created. As though this, finally, might help you understand what the nation really was” (18). The nation, just like any other community, is not a song sung in perfect harmony. It can only be located through clashing and dissonance, through the breakdown of the parts.
The point is driven home when Seon-ju hazily recalls this exchange twenty-two years later, and thinks to herself,
And if he were asking you? If he were asking you now? To wrap them in the Taegukgi—we wanted to do that much for them, at least. We needed the national anthem for the same reason we needed the minute’s silence. To make the corpses we were singing over into something more than butchered lumps of meat (180-1).
Seon-ju shifts language away from the question of the nation, to focus on questions of humanity, to emphasize that the funerals and their attendant rituals bring people together not as Korean citizens fighting against rebels, but as human beings. This supplement does not erase Eun-sook’s point, but rather adds a new layer of meaning to it like another clashing verse. It is this layered accumulation of memory that gives Human Acts a degree of depth and nuance that few works of literature, historical or otherwise, achieve.
Reading Human Acts, I sometimes felt as though I were listening to a story someone had been waiting years to tell; at others, that I was eavesdropping on someone’s deepest thoughts to which I should not be privy. The act of remembering is never easy for the characters in this work, but it is also something they cannot stop doing. Remembering brings back to life the terror these characters experienced, but also always seems hollow for it will never bring back the dead or undo the violence enacted on them. Yet even when characters actively try to refuse to remember, they find those traces of the past welling up within them. A sense of inevitability lingers throughout Human Acts: it is a story that must be told.
Kang, Han. Human Acts. Translated by Deborah Smith. London: Portobello Books, 2016.