As a child, Han Kang came across a photograph of a young woman’s corpse, “dead with a bayonet wound from her cheek to her throat, one eye cracked open and the other closed”. “Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke,” Han writes in her hybrid novel/memoir Human Acts, her second book to be translated into English and a bestseller in her native South Korea.
The woman was a victim of the brutal 1980 Gwangju uprising, in which students protested against the regime only for the troops to be sent in: hundreds (perhaps thousands) were mutilated and massacred. Censorship and cover-ups by the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan followed, and the event was not memorialised until 1997.
Human Acts opens with piles of bodies. Schoolboy Dong-ho searches for his dead friend among rows of corpses, unclaimed, swollen and rotting, in the city’s municipal gym. To combat the smell and show respect, however small, he leaves candles burning by each of the dead, stuffed into old plastic bottles.
In chapters told from different perspectives, Han details the massacre and its aftermath. It gives away little to say that Dong-ho joins the deceased; another student, another statistic. Other characters include a censored editor, a grieving mother, and an academic piecing together the truth. The most daring section is told from the perspective of Dong-ho’s friend, who lies dead in a tower of bodies like some “fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it”. His spirit hovers around his cheeks, “the nape of my neck, clinging to these contours so as not to be parted from my body” and longs for connection to earth, to taste once again the sweet fleshy heart of a hot potato.
With much of the action in the second person, readers can feel distant from the characters and their horrifying experiences. But Han’s tight and poetic language (a bullet hole in the stomach is as “wide as a surprised eye”), translated with grace, makes up for it. She also unusually shifts to nonfiction in the epilogue, adding her own story. Her family, originally from Gwangju, moved to Seoul in 1980. The real Dong-ho lived in the house they had just left. Han met Dong-ho’s brother, who recalled exhuming his body, polishing every bone, every individual tooth, one by one. He begged her, “Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again.” In that, at least, Han has succeeded. EA
Portobello, 224pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Han Kang, Human Acts". Subscribe here.