In May 1980, students and workers in Guangju, South Korea, rose up in protest against the government, and the government responded with violence that lasted for days. Hundreds of people died, and many more were arrested.
I knew nothing about these events until reading this novel by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith set in Guangju in the days and years after the uprising. She begins with the immediate aftermath—the bodies. So many bodies, too many to dispose of easily. A teenage boy, Dong-hu (referred to as “you” in this chapter), is one of many who helps organize the bodies and record what can be discerned about them. These decaying bodies are witnesses and reminders.
The book then moves on to other witnesses and participants, each chapter looking back at the massacre from a different point of view. Many of the characters in subsequent chapters knew Dong-hu, but some did not know him well. Each one experienced the period leading up to the uprising, the violence, and the aftermath a little differently. And each one is scarred by it, even decades later.
This is a difficult book to read. Han does not hold back in her descriptions, whether she’s focusing on putrefying bodies or specific tortures inflicted on the imprisoned. One thing is clear is that bodies matter. It is bodies that are put on the line. Bodies are vulnerable to pain and death. Bodies carry scars and the memory of suffering. And although people are more than bodies, bodies and spirits cannot be separated, even among the dead. I think that’s the reason the book is so graphic. This is not an inspirational look at how protest lifts the soul.
That’s not to say that Han is saying protest is meaningless. I’m not sure she’s taking a position on that at all. The people who get involved do so because they can’t avoid it. The wrongs have become too great to keep silent, and some form of resistance has become inevitable. But the politics behind the protest don’t seem to her main interest, unless there’s some undercurrent I missed because I don’t know South Korean politics. What does interest her are the consequences of violence, especially violence inflicted by the state.
The characters in this book are haunted by ghosts, by memories, by fear, by guilt. Each one related to the Guangju massacre in a different way, but there was no avoiding the consequences. This is what large-scale violence looks like. You get the sense that the entire community is scarred, although some scars actively itch more than others.
Because of the subject matter, Human Acts is a difficult book to read. It bore into me almost from the beginning, although it doesn’t have the compelling weirdness of Han’s The Vegetarian. But it’s not straightforward historical fiction either. Each chapter has a slightly different style, some dreamlike and some more visceral. I think that approach works better than a more literal rendering of events would. It’s not a book about getting to the bottom of what happened but a book about the feelings that linger in individuals and in a country. In that respect, it’s powerful.