Human Acts, Han Kang

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I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang some time ago and found her language arresting. Her sparse and exact prose is equally, if not more, clinching in Human Acts, and when this cutting prose is fitted together with the theme of the book, Human Acts becomes a brilliant triumph in not just language but in writing about something as tragic, and brutal, as a massacre. I say it is a triumph, because writing about the trauma of tragedy is often such a difficult, demanding task. It demands more than just your skill, but an acute sense of humanity and empathy to be able to discern how you’re going to write about, and to truly ask why you want to write about it at all. I am reading this book after reading a book where a tsunami is treated as a backdrop for the love stories of 2 couples and dead bodies of victims are mentioned in passing for the characters to puke after looking at them.

Human Acts recounts the massacre at Gwangju, where Han Kang lived when was younger for some time, in the 80s. At the time, the dictator Park Chung-hee (quick aside — his daughter is the one who was recently impeached in S.Korea) had just been assassinated, and instead of having a democratic replacement, he was replaced instead by Choon Doo-hwan, a major general in the army who had seized military power. He became another dictator who saw to the violent killing, torturing, and beating of students by government troops, which launched protest by civilians (who were also met with the brutal violence of the state).

Looking up the photos is really quite horrifying brutal & I can’t bring myself to reproduce photos of dead students, but some of them are up on google the moment you type in ‘Gwangju uprising’

Looking at them, I remember this line from the book:

You look round at the old man. You don’t ask him if this is his granddaughter. You wait, patiently, for him to speak when he’s ready. ‘There will be no forgiveness’. You look into his eyes, which are flinching from the sight laid out in front of them as though it is the most appalling thing in all this world. ‘There will be no forgiveness. Least of all for me.’

Throughout the book, and afterwards when I read up more about the uprising and looked at pictures, I truly understood why those who suffer unhinged brutality under the state can feel such a visceral desire for revenge, why they can never forgive the individuals that chose to carry out the brutality of the state. I can’t blame them.

The books starts out in a school, but it’s coffins that are being lined up. The bodies are described in this scene, as they are during the rest of the book, with a kind of clinical, detached, but traumatised gaze. The descriptions of the body and the way she writes about them is so important, in my view, to mention. Because the extent of human violence and cruelty can at times be seriously, truly and fully expressed with a honest description, and look, onto the way it is enacted on the human body. Because what is more horrifying to us than the violent defilement of the body? Especially those of children? Utter defilement of the dead is a primitive form of ultimate disrespect to your victims, and those who commit the atrocities of the state carry out this dehumanization:

We will make you realize how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.

Of course when it is done through a photograph, especially journalistically, there’s always that problem of the body being reduced to a product of a machine that is still spinning for profit, the body used as a shocking asset of value to gain clicks. But writing escapes this flaw. And the way Han Kang writes about this is, as I’ve said, truly stark, and brutally clear. There is no aestheticisation of brutality. Matter of factly she writes about the laceration across a face or shoulder, the young face the body belongs to —

… my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.

— the way a child’s dead body swelled so that she seemed like the size of an adult under the white sheet. In one chapter, we are taken through descriptions of how the body of a student is rotting in a pile of other dead bodies before it is eventually burned along with all of them. She didn’t need to tell us her own opinion of what these scenes are, she didn’t need to say “this is evil”. She simply presented us with the scenes. What else is there to say? What can be debated about such blatant violence?

This clear and brutal voice is also the voice the characters speak in when they recount their experience of that time. To me, I had the immediate feeling that the voices of the characters were the voices of disassociation after severe trauma. And one point a character asks “How do you speak of it?” before she recounts a brutal rape she went through that near knocked my breath out. I had not expected to read it, and she had recounted it as if one recounts the weather. It is a punch to the gut, but that is the way the characters speak about those moments of torture, or remembering deaths. That is of course, except for one chapter that focused on the mother of a son who was killed. Her chapter was full of passion and visceral pain.

‘Human Acts’ is not the original title in Korean, but I do find it to be a very powerful title because I really had to come to terms with the fact that humans actually committed such unspeakable acts of violence. And so did the people who went through the massacre. At certain points, the innocent civilians would say something, like telling the children to walk out and surrender, or the young factory girls would strip naked, because they were convinced soldiers would not possibly shoot at helpless children or virginal young women. But in each of these instances they were shot and/or brutally beaten, and in those moments the book really puts into light, the question of human cruelty, because here is the answer.

I can only imagine how much people who have suffered under the weight of such immense injustice and violence would think about the question of human cruelty. About how a human being who is capable of love can at the same time be also someone who withdraws that love so completely for others to the point that they can kill and torture. I can’t imagine, but Han Kang brings me as close as it can get to sympathising. In this following passage, which I found so powerful, she ponders the inevitable question:

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?

I once met someone who was a paratrooper during the Busan uprising. He told me his story after hearing my own. He said that they’d been ordered to suppress the civilians with as much violence as possible, and those who committed especially brutal actions were awarded hundreds of thousands of won by their superiors. One of his company had said, ‘What’s the problem? They give you money and tell you to beat someone up, then why wouldn’t you?’

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. how they forced the women, children and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. it happened in gwangju just as it did on Jeju island, in Kwangtung and Nanjing, in Bosnia and all across the american continent when it was still known as the new world, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I gave this book 5/5 on goodreads. I can’t recommend it enough.

Occupy, Noam Chomsky

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This penguin edition of Occupy is actually a reprint of a pamphlet of the same name, which makes me feel quite hopeful because a pamphlet seems like quite a fringe, guerilla publication & then it is picked up by a major publisher. But then again, of course, this is Noam Chomsky.

This is not a book per se. It’s not a collection of essays but rather some collected transcripts from interviews and notably a speech given about the Occupy Movement in Boston. Despite it being transcripts Chomsky is able to answer questions in the interviews in such a substantial way that it almost doesn’t matter. It only seems to be an issue when parts of his answers are repeated at certain points and you end up reading the same passages again later on.

He praises the success of the the Occupy Wall Street movement in terms of its ability to organise the masses, organise themselves as a leaderless movement. The movement is an example of how mass-based organising and civil disobedience can be successful in enacting real change. The Occupy movement also caused major shifts in the public imagination and discourse around the topic of severe class inequality in the States, where most of the wealth in concentrated not just in the 1%, but the 0.1%. The richest of the rich, the 1% of the 1%.

“For the past generation, policies have been initiated that have led to an extremely sharp concentration of wealth in a tiny sector of the population. In fact, the wealth distribution is very heavily weighted by, literally, the top tenth of one percent of the population, a fraction so small that they’re not even picked up on the census. You have to do statistical analysis just to detect them. And they have benefited enormously. This is mostly from the financial sector—hedge fund managers, CEOs of financial corporations, and so on.”

He also outlines how and why the severe income inequality is sustained, showing how concentration of wealth is linked to a concentration of political power and how these two factors feed into corporate governance that prioritises the needs of the 1% through legislation, tax breaks for the rich, etc at the expense of majority of citizens.

“For the majority, real incomes have pretty much stagnated, sometimes declined. Benefits have also declined and work hours have gone up, and so on. It’s not Third World misery, but it’s not what it ought to be in a rich society, the richest in the world, in fact, with plenty of wealth around, which people can see, just not in their pockets.”

(Unrelated to the book, but I learned today that Goldman Sachs was bailed out by $80 billion worth of taxpayers money. That is downright vile [mix the words around and you get ‘evil’], that the government can oversee the bailing out of banks with the use of public monies, not prosecute guilty bankers, and then at the same time at this current moment refuse to provide affordable health care, housing and safe abortions for its people.)

Anyway a passage I found most telling in the book was the following:

“Over the following years, the concept of “person” was changed by the courts in two ways. One way was to broaden it to include corporations, legal fictions established and sustained by the state. In fact, these “persons” later became the management of corporations, according to the court decisions. So the management of corporations became “persons.” It was also narrowed to exclude undocumented immigrants. They had to be excluded from the category of “persons.” And that’s happening right now. So the legislations that you’re talking about, they go two ways. They broaden the category of persons to include corporate entities, which now have rights way beyond human beings, given by the trade agreements and others, and they exclude the people who flee from Central America where the U.S. devastated their homelands, and flee from Mexico because they can’t compete with the highly-subsidized U.S. agribusiness.”

This is significant because the concept of a ‘person’ is often a contested and loaded category. Just by being human, it is not enough to be considered a person, even. In the context of the US (and really, the history of every state), there has always been actual human beings who were dehumanised and not considered humans. Slaves were considered, in the US constitution as 3/5th humans, women were not considered fully human too. Now these things might have been changed on paper, but of course in reality, policy, and especially the enactment of violence by the state against the bodies of Blacks and the controlling of bodies with uteruses, these two groups of people are not treated or regarded as fully human.

The fact that corporations, entities that are actively responsible for the destruction of the environment, what little is left of social welfare and benefits of the state, the pilfering of public taxpayer monies — the fact that they are considered a ‘person’ is something that says everything about how and why severe income inequality can continue not just to persist, but severely worsen. In fact I would say that considering the trajectory, it is not surprising that you would get an exploitative businessman who profits from the current neoliberal, capitalist order as the current president of the states. While most people might have been shocked, I had thought that it was a matter of eventuality. He is truly representative of what the state is like, without any mask or political speak.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in that engaging monologue style that immediately reminded me of Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like in The Fall, Changez, the main protaganist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist strikes a conversation with a stranger in some kind of establishment. In this case, they are both in a restaurant and the stranger is an american man, presumably someone whose vocation deployed him to Pakistan (or at least that’s what it sounded like to me).

I picked up this book perhaps with my expectations already too high. I heard so much about it, most of it good. It had glowing reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Proper scholarly work has been written on it. Admittedly I am late to the party, writing this review 10 years on. I learned that part of its popularity was due to a movie adaptation.

Of the people who criticised it or gave it low ratings I noticed that they tend to be white folks who were aghast at the audacity of the protagonist to be so ungrateful to the wonderful benefits that the wonderful country, The US, had given to him. How could he! One comment mentioned that this is a privileged guy who went to an Ivy League, making it harder to citizens to enter the school. Some even went so far as to insinuate that he should be grateful he got the opportunity to be in the US instead of the obviously inferior and less developed Pakistan. Someone mentioned that they didn’t understand why the protagonist hated the US since the only incidents of racism he faced were negligible. Because criticism of the book is dominantly in this vein (basically ad hominem attacks against the protagonist which largely accuse him of ingratitude) to criticise this book might risk being seen as someone who endorses the messages these ‘critics’ or to invalidate the pain of the character or the issues the book tries to raise.

But my issue with this book is that its criticisms are too superficial, and does not engage with the issues raised with the critical depth necessary. Liberals would love it, I am sure, because the message you get is basically the rather trite one that tells you not to be prejudicial and to question the first impression that you have of someone. This bearded guy is not a terrorist just because he’s brown, muslim, and has facial hair. The American is not necessarily a bigot who hates Muslims and people of colour.

“It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.”

Of course, judging from the nature of comments that criticise the book, I guess this kind of basic message is sadly still necessary, in which case I will have to concede that the book is important and it does the job. And of course I expect there’s always that contention that the writer doesn’t have to write the book with the kind of critical depth that some readers might want, I guess (I’m not convinced with this reasoning when it’s dealing with a political topic as heavy as this though..).

The book is undisputedly engaging, due in part to its stylistic choice. But it falls short on other fronts. The characters are flat, and almost verge on caricature. It is as if these characters have to be a certain way in order to induce the stereotypical/prejudicial reaction from the reader. The word ‘fundamentalist’ being used is at least a little smart though, if only because it does not end up being a story about a guy becoming a Muslim fundamentalist nor does a hint of something concerning ‘political Islam’ or extremism really come up in relation to Changez. The fact that I sort of expected at least a mention of that at least reveals my own instinctive expectations just because of this word. The word in itself provokes reaction. But other than that the characters and their reactions were almost cheesy.

Perhaps Changez himself understands it too simplistically. Perhaps he was protected for the most part of it because he was privileged enough to study in Princeton and did not live in the US for most of his life. But prejudicial attitudes against Muslims, specifically Muslims who are people of colour, did not start from 9-11 though it did worsened after that.

The book does make an effort to point out American exceptionalism through engaging with the theme of nostalgia. In the one quote that I like from the whole book, it manages the critical depth that is at least necessary:

“As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.”

The fact is, however, that the reality of America’s (the state) treatment of those deemed Other and different and therefore suspicious is located not within the individual attitudes of prejudice. Neither is it located just within American exceptionalism which is presented in the book, like in the quote above, to be something that is perpetuated by an arrogant populace. The truth is that this arrogance has been manufactured and then perpetuated through sheer belief. American exceptionalism is only a vehicle/an instrument utilised by the state to continue its long drawn history of how it has always established itself in violent terms against Others, first through genocide of native Americans, then the slavery of black people, the violent annexation of a part of Mexico, placing Japanese people in internment camps, etc. The list goes on.

The issue that is being raised in this book is far more complex and nuanced than can be portrayed with the flat characters. I wish I could find better words to explain why I didn’t enjoy this book in the end & found it disappointing. But mainly it was due to the way it poorly handled the political discussion surrounding the book & how simplistically I felt it was done. It felt good to read if you wanted to virtue-signal & say hey, I read this, I agree that we shouldn’t be prejudicial. I felt that there were so many gaping voids, including the fact that Changez seems to be the only Muslim in the US we engage with in the book. All the others he engages with seem to be basically white America.

Of course maybe I am being demanding to expect the political sophistication 10 years ago when 9-11 was still fresh in the psyche & discussions were still fresh too about Muslims, islamophobia & American foreign policy. Perhaps I am even being too much to expect political sophistication in a literary work. But I don’t think it is unfair to demand that if a work wishes to invoke a political issue, then it has to be properly engaged with so that this issue, a material, violent reality that affects others, isn’t just treated like an empty fodder than ends up making a work of art more interesting. Of course I’m not saying that this is what he does. I am merely trying to explain why I had expected so much from this book. It did not deliver in my opinion, but I am willing to concede that most well-intentioned liberals would love it.