“The moment when you are forced to acknowledge that what you experienced was no mere dream. Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a foot-long wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus? To a rifle butt bludgeoning my cervix? To the fact that, when the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I had gone into shock, they had to take me to the hospital for a blood transfusion? Is it possible to face up to my continuing to bleed for the next two years, to a blood clot forming in my fallopian tubes leaving me permanently unable to bear children?”
This is one of the many graphic experiences that the reader is taken through in Kang’s novel, Human Acts.
Centred around the Gwangju uprising of May 1980 and revealed through the killing of a middle school boy, Dong-ho, this novel embarks on the ambitious task of asking fundamental questions to the existence of humans — what exactly is humanity? And as such Kang embroils her readership with difficult scenarios and an even tougher line of questioning. Power, responsibility, violence, helplessness, grief, guilt, trauma, relief, apathy…she does not leave an emotion or a morality unquestioned in her prose.
The 1979 assassination of President Park, South Korea’s military dictator, gave way to the implementation of martial law and thus, a heavily policed state. This was strongly criticised and a call for democracy was made on several societal fronts, across the country. On the 18th May 1980, in Jeonnam University, the armed forces opened fire on the protesting student body. What ensued was a public outcry. Special forces were soon deployed, who took to a heightened forms of oppression and brutality — students were beaten, clubbed, bayoneted and executed. There were protests, there were settlement committees, there were civil militias — various forms of individual bodies, all demanding a retreat of the army from the public space. On May 27th, the militias took to the Provincial Office, knowing full and well they were facing a final standoff. The army defeated the civil militias in a matter of hours.
This portrait based novel focuses on six characters, all who have been affected by the violence and brutality that consumed the air of Gwangju in 1980. Kang gives vivid insights into their pain, their loss and their lives onwards from the moment the army stormed the Provincial Office, with their narrative being intertwined with the narrative of Dong-ho’s death. The nature of the novel seems to be embroiled with the feelings, reflections and lamentations of the characters as opposed to the mechanisms of the violence or indeed, any explanations for it. There is an overall sense of mourning, whether it is the former factory girl mourning the loss of her intimacy or Dong-ho’s mother who mourns not only the loss of Dong-ho but also of the relationship between two of her existing sons, which has soured amidst blames for Dong’ho’s death.
Despite this being a palpably concise novel, Kang effortlessly cuts across boundaries of time and generation in her prose. Kang has not been shy in the novel to depict the violence with which her characters lost their lives, loved ones or even an aspect of their being in their respective spaces. Each successive page, each successive chapter unleashes pain in a new form, distinct from the previous.
Kang discovered the massacre at the age of 12 after having found a memorial of photographs on her family bookshelf and the final chapter is her link to Dong’ho and Gwangju’s bloody past. “I remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet…silently, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there”. The shattering of this unnamed thing deep inside Kang, is something that the reader experiences with each hopeless scenario faced in each chapter — and this realisation makes one appreciate the excellence with which Kang penned this novel.
So in the context of Kang’s novel, and her line of questioning as to what is humanity? I shall keep it succinct, humanity is bleak. Probably at its bleakest. Kang’s work is a feat in highlighting the aftermath of the Gwangju rising and painting sorrow on different canvases through the strokes of various colours. She brings to light questions of responsibility of government and establishments, which they owe to their citizens. Whilst putting the book down, I could not help but recall Habib Jalib’s lines, which focused on the struggles surviving in a dictatorship, which he so avidly spoke and rallied against:
کہیں گیس کا دھواں ہے
کہیں گولیوں کی بارش ہے
شب عہد کم نگاہی
تجھے کس طرح سراہیں
Kahin gas ka dhuaan hai
Kahin golion ki barish
Shab e ehd kum nigaahi
Tujhe kaisay hum saraahein
- Human Acts by Han Kang. Good reads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30091914-human-acts
- Kwangju uprising. South Korean History. https://www.britannica.com/event/Kwangju-Uprising
- Habib Jalib. The poet of the people. Bodhi Commons. http://beta.bodhicommons.org/article/habib-jalib-the-poet-of-the-people
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