In its part-fictional account of the non-fiction 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea – when citizens of the city, especially students of Chonnam University, demonstrated against the government and advocated for democratisation of the country – Han Kang’s “Human Acts” focuses on the lived and intimate experiences of different individuals wound up in the tragedy, who account for and make sense of their pain, suffering, and helplessness from different perspectives. And even though there is little doubt over the government’s culpability and disproportionate human rights atrocities against the victims, the reader is confronted not just with the direct realities of being assaulted, tortured, or killed, but also with the indirect trauma of living in the aftermath of of loved ones.
In the words of the translator: “The novel is equally unusual in delving into the complex background of the democratisation movement, though [Han’s] style is always to do this obliquely, through the experiences of her characters, rather than presenting a dry historical account”.
Han draws upon these connections in a few oblique ways. Overall, the seven chapters are linked chronologically from 1980 (the massacre) to 2013 (the author’s reflective epilogue prior to publication) and furthermore by the young schoolboy Dong-ho, who is related to every character including his best friend and his mother, all of whom anchors each chapter – in one way or another. Second, while the reader is privy to the encounters and interactions of all the characters, the realisation that the characters were operating with incomplete knowledge under confusing circumstances only intensifies the brutality. Next, together with a vivid narrative style which blends stream of consciousness and oftentimes uncomfortable conversations, visceral descriptions of the human body being subject to torture, death, and even decomposition make for grisly depictions.
And finally amidst such grief and despair, “Human Acts” wrenches the heart one last time by offering little to no closure – at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book too – seemingly alluding to the observation that although successive South Korean administrations have made attempts at reconciliation and at setting the record straight, many of the physical and emotional scars, beyond the 606 people estimated to have died as a result, may never be reversed. By prioritising the lived lives (including the dead, at least in one instance) over the discourse surrounding the socio-political context of the tragedy, the reader is forced to ponder what might have been and to give serious thought to the implications of the tragedy or similar events in the future.