In 1980, students and workers in Gwangju, South Korea protested about the ‘increasingly repressive measures’ introduced by Park Chung-hee and continued by his successor Chun Doo-hwan after his death (p1). Doo-hwan shut universities, made political activities illegal and silenced the press. He then ordered his soldiers to suppress the pro-democracy uprising in as brutal a way as possible. A truly devastating read about, as its title suggests, the most horrific of human acts, this novel is well deserving of its Man Booker International Prize.
Not being schooled in Korean, I read this in translation. In her introduction Smith points out that the section of the book ‘The Boy’s Mother’ was penned in Gwangju dialect, something which reflects the regional relevance of this piece of history. The working class of the south were hardest hit by the drive to create an economically competitive infrastructure, she tells us – the true price of the success of a city like Seoul. This clarifies why it wasn’t just students but also factory workers involved with the demonstrations. Probably because of the extremity of the violence inflicted on the protestors, the government covered up what had happened. Indeed they suppressed the truth so thoroughly that those living in the north had no idea of the scale of what had happened until a memorial was created in 1997. As a result, actual figures of people lost to Gwangju are still shamefully buried. Nobody knows how many people lost their lives.
As the young student Dong-ho labels the bodies in the gym, he observes ‘there are no souls here. There are only silenced corpses’ (p13). Korean animist beliefs determine that ‘violence done to the body is a violation of the spirit/soul which animates it’ (p2). The pile of dead bodies laid out in a crucifix form (suggesting martyrdom) becomes ‘an enormous fantastical beast, its dozen legs splayed out beneath it (p52).
The mourners struggle against this dehumanisation:
We needed the national anthem for the same reason we needed the minute’s silence. To make the corpses we were singing over into something more than butchered lumps of meat (p181).
The meat analogy recurs before the prison guards resume their torture. ‘We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals,’ they tell the prisoners (p126). They succeed:
Watery discharge and sticky pus, foul saliva, blood, tears and snot, piss and shit that soiled your pants. That was all that was left to me. No, that was what I myself had been reduced to. I was nothing but the sum of those parts. The lump of rotting meat from which they oozed was the only ‘me’ there was (p127).
Yet in crafting this novel Kang strives to return humanity to the dead and the tortured. One of the most striking and terribly beautiful sections in the book was the Gothic account given by Jeong-dae’s spirit. His soul and those of others whose lives have been taken hover around the bodies that used to belong to them, attempting to connect with one another:
We would lose ourselves in wondering who the other was, without hands, feet, face, tongue, our shadows touching but never quite mingling (p53).
The search for loved ones haunts this text as it has haunted the lives of those in Gwangju whose family members were never found. Kang and her translator skilfully negotiate the characters’ mental transitions from past to present, the continual shifting driving home the sense that victims of such horrific events relive them as though they are the present. Dong-ho searches for his friend Jeong-dae. Jeong-dae’s spirit searches for his sister Jeong-mi. Eun-sook’s life is plagued by unanswered questions about Dong-ho. The roles of the characters are reflected in chapter titles like The Prisoner, The Editor, The Boy’s Friend. This has the odd effect of simultaneously depersonalising the characters – they have been reduced to their roles – but also making them greater than themselves, representatives of all those from Gwangju who took those roles.
The epilogue gives Kang’s own account. Until she was 9 years old – the year before the atrocities – Kang had grown up in Gwangju so it is fitting that the last chapter in the book is hers. Like any anthropologist, Kang cannot remove herself from the text but it is only at the end that we discover the nature of her connection to the characters whose experiences she depicts.
The blend of fiction, historical document and memoir is the most appropriate way to tell a story like this. It allows for authenticity both of objective facts and of what is much more relevant – individual and collective human experience. I would have been interested to read a perspective from one of the military alongside the victim’s stories. In the Factory Girl chapter, Eun-sook is approached by a researcher who already has several accounts from the militia for his ‘psychological autopsy’ but little from victims in whose accounts, ‘anything painful was just skimmed over’ (p147). The suggestion is that the voices of those who were in power have already been dealt with extensively in research papers whereas those of the survivors are lacking.
The question of whose voices to represent and how in a historical text is not straightforward, particularly when an event is in the living memory of many. Before recounting one of the most horrendous accounts of torture you will ever read, The Factory Girl states, ‘Yoon has asked you to… ‘face up to those memories’, to ‘bear witness to them.’ But how can such a thing be possible?’ (p174). I suspect Kang is uncomfortable at the questions she has had to ask in her research and sees some of herself in Yoon.
In recounting an illegal raid by riot police which resulted in six deaths in 2009, Kang suggests aggression was still at work in South Korea very recently:
Gwangju had become another name for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down and brutalised, for all that has been mutilated beyond repair (p216).
Little in this novel holds hope except the spirit of the students who decided to hold their ground despite the force they knew was coming. But, even bearing in mind the precarious (but nevertheless encouraging) situation between North Korea and The USA, there is a lot that is hopeful about South Korea today. The leader Moon Jae-in who recently astounded the world with his peacemaking attempts with North Korea has spent much of his life as a human rights lawyer fighting for labour rights activists and students persecuted for opposing the military dictatorship. He was also one of the student activists demonstrating in 1980.
Kang, Han, Human Acts trans. Smith, Deborah, 2016: Portobello Books.