The essential quality of human extremity is its otherness. We see the emaciated hands clasping the barbed wire, the bodies leaping from the smoke-wreathed skyscraper, the knife glittering at the throat of the figure in the orange overalls, and the mind swiftly recoils towards images of ordinariness: falling rain; leaves dancing in the wind; the taste of sponge cake; a beloved friend’s kind, plain face. These antidotes to horror anchor us to a world regulated by justice, order and kindness – the banalities of goodness. Yet they persist, strangely adrift but invested with a different kind of potency, in places where violence and cruelty prevail.
Dong-ho, the 15-year-old protagonist of Han Kang’s novel, sits on the steps of a school gymnasium in the South Korean city of Gwangju. “Looks like rain,” he thinks, narrowing his eyes until, between the branches of the gingko trees opposite, it seems as if “the wind is about to take on a visible form. As though the raindrops suspended in the air, held breath before the plunge, are on the cusp of trembling down, glittering like jewels.”
His reverie is broken by the voice of a woman speaking into a microphone, and he returns to his task of logging the increasing numbers of decomposing corpses, mostly very young, ranged in the gym, now transformed into a morgue after the massacre by government troops of hundreds of protesters involved in a civil uprising in Gwangju.
Han Kang’s novel, her second to be translated into English, appears a year after her remarkable fiction The Vegetarian. That narrative was concerned with an individual act of self-effacement. Human Acts deals with the obliteration, both physical and psychic, of hundreds of its own citizens by the South Korean regime in the early 1980s.
In the introduction to her admirable translation, Deborah Smith sketches the novel’s political background. In 1979, South Korea’s long-serving virtual dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the head of the intelligence service and replaced by his own protégé and fellow general Chun Doo-hwan. Chun extended martial law, closed universities and restricted press freedom. In Gwangju, from which Han, then aged nine, had just moved with her family to the outskirts of Seoul, student demonstrators against the government were joined by trade unionists and unarmed fellow citizens.
The extreme brutality with which the protests were suppressed created a logistical problem common to violent regimes: what to do with the physical remains – dead and living – of the murdered, the imprisoned and tortured? And, more intractable still, what to do with the ineradicable memories of those who had witnessed such acts?
Han’s novel explores these questions through the testimonies of six witnesses to the massacre whose experiences are linked across three decades. They include Dong-ho, his friend Jeong-dae, whose unquiet spirit speaks after his death in the first wave of violence, several of his fellow protesters whose later lives are maimed by their torture and imprisonment, and Dong-ho’s bereaved mother. In an epilogue dated 2013 (the year in which Park Chung-hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye became president), a character known as “The Writer” appears to speak in the voice of Han herself, recalling a raid by the authorities on her family home; the half-heard conversations of adults, “as though we children were spies”; and the moment when, aged 11, she looked at a forbidden book of images of the massacre. “Soundlessly; and without fuss, something deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.”
Without fuss, but with exquisitely controlled eloquence, the novel chronicles the tragedy of ordinariness violated: the 30-centimetre rulers and ballpoint pens deployed as instruments of torture; the pattern of water droplets on a skirt worn by a young girl slashed and bludgeoned to death; the memory of the taste of sponge cake that draws tears from a 15-year-old prisoner; the strangely poetic fragments of a play script savagely redacted by the censors: “Evening are our streets and our houses.”
These “snapshot moments”, as one character describes them, “when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves . . . felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart . . . making it beat again”. In the echo chambers of Han’s haunting prose, precisely and poetically rendered by Smith, the sound of that heartbeat resonates with defiant humanity.
Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is published by Portobello Books (224pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war