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Han Kang: 소년이 온다 (Human Acts)

Han Kang’s first novel, 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian), certainly had its gruesome parts but nothing compared to this novel. If you are in any way squeamish, this is not the novel for you.

In 1961, General Park Chung-hee seized power in a military coup. Dissent, which had been growing during his term in power, increased and was brutally suppressed. In 1979, he was assassinated and General Chun Doo-hwan took power. In May 1980, students in Gwangju, in the south of the country and Han Kang’s home town (she was nine at the time), protested and confronted the army. This led to the Gwangju Uprising, in which the army turned on the students and killed large numbers. Actual numbers are still not known. The army and government claimed that they were putting down a Communist uprising. This book is about the events of the Uprising and what happened as a result, as seen through the eyes of a few participants.

The book is narrated by various participants as well as in the third person. It starts with a high school boy called Dong-ho. He lives with his family but, in the annex to his house, are a brother and sister, Jeong-dae and Jeong-mi. As we gradually learn, Jeong-mi has been out in the streets, got caught up in the violence and had been shot by the soldiers. However, when Dong-ho and Jeong-dae go out to join the protest, they are not aware of this. During the protest, they are not aware that the soldiers have been instructed to shoot to kill and that is what they do. Jeong-dae is soon hit. Dong-ho is not sure whether Jeong-dae is dead (though we soon are) but he manages to flee unscathed.

Dong-ho later returns to the place where the bodies are being stored, run by volunteers. He claims he is just looking for a friend but we learn that he is in fact looking for both Jeong-dae and Jeong-mi. He does not find them but he is asked to help, which involves covering up the bodies, recording details and helping grieving relatives look for their loved ones. He stays there for some time but does not find either of his friends. The people there learn that the soldiers are to return that night and it is suggested that they go home, particularly the women and the boys still at school. Some do but many stay on. They have rudimentary firearms, in which they have no training, and are hoping that, once dawn comes, the inhabitants of the town will come out en masse to resist the army. We learn early on that this is not going to happen. Dong-ho should have returned home but does not and is there when the army attack. It all happens so quickly that the students are overrun without firing a shot.

We follow in considerable detail over the course of the book the events of the actual attack, the day before, and the subsequent days. Interestingly enough, we have Jeong-dae, speaking from the dead, telling us what happened to the bodies. Only in death, is he aware what has happened both to his sister and to Dong-ho. It is his spirit that speaks to us and Han Kang gives us an interesting evocation of the Eastern view of the relationship between the spirit and the body. She also spares us no details about the putrefying bodies.

We also follow what happens to the students that are captured after the army attacks and, again, we are spared no details of what happens to them. Some of them not arrested at the site are rounded up in house-to-house searches. All are subject to what Han Kang calls disciplinary beatings. Those who did not have weapons are released, if they have survived. Those who had weapons are tortured and eventually have to sign confessions. They are sentenced to long prison sentences but are subsequently released after a relatively short time.

We even follow what happens to them in later life. All are traumatised. They cannot sleep, have both physical and mental health issues, cannot sustain relationships and cannot hold down jobs. Some commit suicide. Even after the events it is not over. One woman, Eun-sook, who had asked Dong-ho to help with the bodies, becomes an editor at a small publishing house. A surreptitious translation is arranged of a British book on crowd psychology. She does not know the translator’s name or where he lives. However, the authorities come looking for him. She cannot help so one man slaps her hard on the cheek seven times, causing her to bleed. The chapter about her tells how she tries to get over one slap per day and how she does it. As the pain has gone by the seventh day, she never gets over the seventh slap. Despite their surreptitious approach, everything still has to be submitted to the censor and is often heavily redacted.

One man is even writing a book about the events and wants to interview eight witnesses whom he tracks down. We meet one who initially declines to give her testimonial, even anonymously but eventually relents. We read some of her testimony and some of the testimony of others. This woman – Lim Seon-ju – had actually been with a group of women fighting for labour rights, with others, including Jeong-mi and had been tortured when arrested for that.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this book is gruesome. Han Kang spares us nothing. We get detailed descriptions of the putrefying bodies, of the wounds in the dead bodies, of the torture carried out on the students as well as as of the psychological and physical scars the survivors bear. We learn, in an afterword, that while none of Han Kang’s relatives were involved, the family did know people who were and Dong-ho is a real person. What she has given us is a brilliantly written description of the horrors perpetrated by the South Korean military and government and the bravery of those that opposed them, many of them women. These horrors are little known in the West but this book will certainly show what happened and why it should not be forgotten.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Ch’angbi
First English translation by Portobello in 2016
Translated by Deborah Smith