In Search of Lost Voices
Post-assassination of South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee in 1979, a promised spring was within reach, making the spirits of the country’s denizens soar. It didn’t take long for them to realize that the celebratory drums were played prematurely. The long and chilly winter they thought they’ve evaded returned with a vengeance, inevitably altering the landscape of the country’s history. In response to the widespread outcry of its citizens for democratization, the increasingly authoritarian government imposed a martial law to stymie the rambunctious noise generated by its critics.
With the escalation of civil unrest, the national government was pushed to its limits. On the 18th of May 1980, it sent its troops to the southern city of Gwangju to stifle student protests at Jeonnam University. With an openly aggressive approach, the soldiers opened fire at the students, enraging the city’s denizens who took on the streets to show solidarity. Rather than calming down the situation, a group of special forces resorted to even more grisly acts of brutality, clubbing and bayoneting students and firing live rounds into crowds.
What began as an innocent protest against the atrocities of the government has turned into a bloodlust that finally ended after ten days. As the dusts settled, lifeless bodies of victims lie scattered on the streets of Gwangju. A general silence prevailed all over but the screams of agonies and anguish echo all over. Official death toll keeps being disputed, ranging from as low as 200 to as much as 2,000. Statistics may vary but what cannot be denied are the glass-shattering screams of pain in torture chambers, the perpetual grief of the many bereaved, and the dark pall that hovered above the general Korean consciousness.
“Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded. The world darkens, like electric bulbs going out one by one. I am aware that I am not a safe person.” ~ Han Kang, Human Acts
Gwangju native and Man Boooker International Prize-winning author, Han Kang, Human Acts, a narrative yoked to this heartbreaking and grim phase of South Korean history. Skipping the event, the novel commenced in the aftermath of the tragedy, a pile of corpses and an ocean of blood. In the cavernous hall of the gymnasium bereft of life, silence reigned. The wall says otherwise – they reverberate with cries of pain, horror, and anguish. In the company of the corpses is 15-year-old Dong Ho who was helping clean, segregate and lay out corpses for identification. He was also searching for his friend.
Covering a thirty-year period, the novel branches out to the singular stories of a representative group of victims and survivors. From 1980, the story jumped to 1985 where an editor struggles to cut the red tape of censorship. Fast forward to 1990 when, for the sake of an academic study, a prisoner was coaxed to retell the horrors of the hellish quarters. But it is the last two chapters that redefined the novel. In 2010, Dong Ho’s mother relate the emotional turmoil post her son’s death and the struggle for justice that accompanied it. As fiction ultimately shifts to nonfiction, Kang related her own journey, sharing that she and her family once lived in the house Dong Ho’s family occupied.
At the surface, Human Acts revolves around how one single event can inevitably alter the face of a nation and disrupts its natural flow. In light of the tragedy, will we cower in the face of tragedies that limit the boundaries when the voices of the majority is silenced in a blatant display, how will we, as human beings, recover that voice that was forcibly taken from us, stop grieving for a loved one that was lost in the pandemonium, or regain the trust of a government that selectively censors ideas and works that are critical of it.
One character asks, “To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered – is this essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?” Kang poses seminal and essential questions central to understanding our identity as a race. How can we move on in light of such atrocity, or deal with the two faces of society? Will we be able to pierce the shroud of disillusion and estrangement that these events have covered us in? Human Acts gave a special microscope upon which we can examine the definition of our own humanity.
“She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.” ~ Han Kang, Human Acts
Human Acts sheds light not just on the horrors of the Gwangju incident but on challenges of finding beauty and meaning after scenes of unbearable cruelty and raw violence. It appeals to the collective consciousness of humanity that is in want of an escape from the physical. The silhouettes of death and pain accompany the readers as they navigate the labyrinthine literary journey. Its presence is not overwhelming neither is it unmistakable for it is an essential element of the story.
Underneath the surface of the microtext, a raw power thrums, creating ripples of emotions that move through every direction. Every word carried with it an indefinable capacity to sway the readers and open them up. Kang translated her emotions into text and each word carries with it a piece of Kang’s emotion, nerve endings which outlines our image as human beings, threads upon which we can connect with each other. Each story is a microcosm of the tenderness and the vulnerabilities of the human soul.
Kang’s transcendental writing made the narrative flourish like spring after winter. She wrote with such resolution, capturing and depicting evocative scenes with each turn. Through masterful strokes, she painted seven interwoven tapestries. Each part of the tapestry is equally powerful, each equally compelling, each an important part of a bigger picture. This tapestry captures the readers’ imagination and engages their sensibilities. Kang’s writing was a liquid device which made raw emotions flow diaphanously. We don’t need to be Dong Ho to know how Dong Ho felt.
But whilst Human Acts is no perfect masterpiece, it gave a visceral and luminous experience. In seven heartbreaking chapters and seven distinct characters, readers, Kang delivered a literary masterpiece that evoked the very same emotion she felt seeing the picture of a mutilated girl, one of many victims of the flourish of blood and barbarity. She reminded her readers of the fragility of our human spirits. Kang powerfully described the feeling of being shot; of the moment the bullet enters then exits the body; of how, in between the egress and the ingress, the bullet shatters something tender in us in slow, painful motion. She trudged the thin line of indifference to deliver a work where emotions spring eternal, evoking a collective sense of humanity, not once, not twice but seven times.
“The door leading back to that summer has been slammed shut; you’ve made sure of that. But that means that the way is also closed that might have led back to the time before. There is no way back to the world before the torture. No way back to the world before the massacre.” ~ Han Kang, Human Acts
Kang threads a seminal point in our genetic makeup through the lens of violence masterminded by the most violent of God’s creations – the human. Alternatively called the May 18 Democratic Uprising by UNESCO, the Gwangju is a monument, and a grim and constant reminder of the extent of men’s evils and the atrocities they can extend towards their fellows. The pandemonium humans can stir is beyond imaginations. But through it all, there are redeeming points.
Human Acts is more than just the hackneyed war-violence trope readers usually come across. Kang digs deeper and explores the subterranean world of human sensitivity and the continuously shifting definition of humanity in light of a society that is increasingly careening towards strife and discord. Timely and relevant, Human Acts is a potent local story that reverberates with a universal message.
Characters (30%) – 30%
Plot (30%) – 30%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
When I first came across Han Kang’s Human Acts in the bookstore, I didn’t give it that much thought because of my previous experience with Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning work, The Vegetarian. But after being convinced by a fellow bookworm, I gave it a second thought and I am sure glad I did. The former is a world away from the latter and each has their own distinct voices. However, both carries equally important messages that are viscera. Human Acts redeemed Kang to me. Whilst I admired her language in The Vegetarian, it was Human Acts that made me believe in the power of her prose.
Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Publisher: Portobello Books
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 224
Genre: Novel, Fiction
Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalized country searches for a voice.
From the award-winning author of The Vegetarian comes a riveting and poetic examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.
About the Author
To learn more about Han Kang, please click here.