Human Acts is a difficult novel to read. It is natural to turn away from the gruesome and horrifying details of death, torture, and murder. To be honest, I turned away from her first book, the 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian. It told the story of Yeong-hye, a woman who was beaten, raped, and abused by her husband with the full approval of her family. The excuse was her vegetarianism, an affront to tradition. It was well-written but so degrading to Yeong-hye that even though I was over half-way through, I could not bear it and returned it to the library unfinished.
But Human Acts is rooted in historical fact. There was an uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, on May 17-18, 1980. The May 18 Democratic Uprising was crushed by overwhelmingly brutal reprisals and repression that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, many of them students. Human Acts begins with the story of one of those students, a 15 year-old boy who was looking for the bodies of his friends and stayed to tend the bodies and register their names as they were piled up at the gymnasium. The other six narratives in the novel link to him whether directly or indirectly.
There are seven narratives: The Boy, the story of Dong-hu in 1980; The Boy’s Friend, also in 1960; The Editor, in 1985; The Prisoner, 1990; The Factory Girl, 2002; The Boy’s Mother, Dong-hu’s mother in 2010; and The Writer, Han Kang explaining her own connection to Dong-hu in 2013. These are painful stories, deep and unflinching exhumations of pain and suffering.
If Human Acts were only about the uprising and its aftermath, it would be easier to look away when the spirit of the boy’s friend narrates his growing claustrophobia as his leaking, decomposing body is crushed under the weight of more and more bodies that pile on top of him, dripping effluent and rot on him as he, too, leaks and decomposes. It’s stomach-churning and nauseating to read, the sheer awfulness of the brutality emphasized by words that are repeated, phrases slightly reworked in a repetitious, claustrophobia that had me telling myself to buck up, after all, the people of murdered in the uprising put their lives on the line for democracy, the least I could do it read about it.
After all, Han is not writing about the massacre and its aftermath out of an obsession with death and misery, but to speak to our capacity for brutality and humanity. The Factory Girl tells us, “There is no way back to the world before the torture. No way back to the world before the massacre.” This is true for all the survivors whose lives are marked permanently by the massacre and its aftermath. But Gwangju is not just Gwangju, it is Vietnam, Wounded Knee, Nanking, it is brutality unleashed, humanity discarded.
As Han wrote in her final narrative, “In other words, “Gwangju” had become another name for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down, and brutalized, for all that has been mutilated beyond repair. The radioactive spread is ongoing. Gwangju had been reborn only to be butchered again in an endless cycle. It was razed to the ground, and raised up anew in a bloodied rebirth.”
Han makes a point that not all soldiers brutalized the people. Some carried wounded protesters on their backs to the hospital, some fired into the air, or refused to sing along with an army chorus. She reminds us that this was done by choice. And then asks us not to look away, “But now, if we can only keep our eyes open, if we can all hold our gazes steady, until the bitter end.”