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.
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 this 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, damaged, slaughtered — is this the essential fate of human kind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
It’s Wednesday morning, the last week of term. Later, I will pick Pops up from pre-school early & together we will go to church for the school Harvest Festival service. The sky is a high distant blue streaked with white cloud; the October light golden, oblique.
Last Friday we were having dinner with friends & I was asked what I was reading. I tried to describe Han Kang’s Human Acts. I failed spectacularly. Why, it was implied, would you want to read about torture, about corpses, about a violently suppressed student uprising that took place thirty years ago in South Korea?
I tried to convey how extraordinary this book is. How beautiful and how brutal, how poetic and how violent, how specific yet how universal. How powerful it is. How important it is. How very much I was loving it as an act of humanity, of empathy, of incredible evocation, and, perhaps above all, as both a wonderful novel and an example of what literature can do.
Human Acts unfolds in six parts, six voices from the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, with an epilogue in the voice of ‘The Writer’ making a seventh. It’s a stunning technical achievement — polyphonic, spanning more than thirty years, moving fluidly from past to present, from the living to the dead. The link between the sections is the boy, Dong-ho, fifteen years old and, as the book opens, searching for the body of his friend, Jeong-dae.
Bodies are everywhere in Human Acts. The unidentified bodies, putrid and rotting, that Dong-ho tends in the gymnasium of the Provincial Office. His friend, Jeong-dae’s dead body which Jeong-dae comes to hate as it rots: “[I] was filled with hatred for my body. Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat. Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun.” The beaten face of the Editor, and the tortured bodies of the Prisoner (“Every day I examine the scar on my hand. This place where the bone was once exposed, where a milky discharge seeped from a festering wound. Every time I come across an ordinary Monami biro, the breath catches in my throat.”) and the Factory Girl (“Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a thirty-centimeter wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus? […] Is it possible to bear witness to the fact that I ended up despising my own body, the very physical stuff of myself?”).
Han Kang was born in Gwangju and lived there until she was nine, just months before the Uprising. The three decades that have past allow her to trace the long afterlife of the events of that summer. The high suicide rate of survivors, the emotional shutdown of torture victims, the long-term grief of families. In the epilogue, narrated by ‘The Writer’, she writes,
I read an interview with someone who had been tortured; they described the after-effects as ‘similar to those experienced by victims of radioactive poisoning.’ Radioactive matter lingers for decades in muscle and bone, causing chromosomes to mutate. Cells turn cancerous, life attacks itself. Even if the victim dies, even if their body is cremated, leaving nothing but the charred remains of bone, that substance cannot be obliterated.
Human Acts has been the slowest, fastest read. It isn’t a long book. Its prose is beautiful and understated. Despite its many shifts in narrator, tense and time, Deborah Smith’s translation runs as clear as a stream (she writes in her fascinating introduction that she has added temporal headings & paragraph breaks in places). But it’s taken me over three weeks to read. Each time I put it down I was reluctant to pick it up again. Each time it was in my hands I was totally absorbed, unable to take my eyes from the page. When I finished it in bed last night, I was sobbing so hard that I could hardly see the words. It was the section narrated by the boy’s mother that undid me. I thought that I was crying silently, but B said later that he thought I would never stop.
I can’t leave it there, for I can’t fail again. I want you to read this book. I want everyone to. On a morning when the sky is blue, when my children are safe, when it’s hard to imagine that a very different world is just a paper wall away, I want to tell you to look into the darkness of human nature which Kang pursues so resolutely. For she finds not only darkness, but what dignity she can. Dignity in the families of the dead, in the ordinary citizens who queue at the hospital to give blood, in those who can speak up and those who can’t.
And if you want confirmation of the power of the novel to speak what can’t be spoken, to tell what can’t be told, to bring the voices of the dead alongside the living, you’ll find it in these pages. I’ll leave the last words to Han Kang herself:
For three months after December 2012 I spent eight or nine hours every day reading brutal documents related to Gwangju, followed by examples of other brutal acts which the human race had perpetrated throughout the twentieth century; the more I read, the more the faith in humanity I’d had so far, such as it was, crumbled. I felt thwarted, unable to carry on writing, and almost did give up. Then, I happened across the final diary entry of a member of the civilian militia who had stayed behind in the Provincial Office in the early hours of May 27 1980, and died. A quiet, delicate-natured twenty-seven-year-old who had taught at night school. The entry was in the form of a prayer, and began thus: ‘Oh God, why does this thing called the conscience pierce and pain me so? I want to live.’ Reading it, I realised what I had been missing in my previous reading. And what I thought was, though this novel began with human brutality and violence, it has to move towards human dignity. I felt that that was the only way, to go as far in that direction as possible.interview with Han Kang in the White Review
An interview with Han Kang about the book.
Deborah Smith, writes about translating the book.
Guardian review by Eimear McBride