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.