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book cover artI didn’t really know what Han Kang’s Human Acts was about. I knew it was brutal and that’s about it. It turns out it is about the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in May, 1980. I had never heard about this and did I ever get a history education.

I didn’t learn much about Korea in school other than a little about the war. In my ignorance I thought that after the war there was communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. But it turns out things in the south were not an everything is fine democracy at all. In 1979 President Park Chung-hee, authoritarian ruler for eighteen years, was assassinated. His successor did not have complete control of the government and in December, 1979 the military seized power in a coup d’etat.

When Park was assassinated pro-democracy groups that had been suppressed during his rule became active again. There were demonstrations all over the country but the events in Gwangju were particularly atrocious. In May, 1980, with approval from the U.S. government which still had operational command after the war, elite paratroopers and other military were sent in to quell the unrest.The Korean government says 200 people, mostly civilians, were killed. Gwangju citizens say it was closer to 2,000.

Human Acts takes the civilian side of events beginning a few days after the military appeared and killed large numbers of protesters and it ends in 2013. Told in a variety of voices, we begin with a boy, Dong-ho, in a second-person viewpoint. It’s always risky to write “you” because “you” can so easily say no, that’s not how I feel/think/believe. But it works with Dong-ho. It pulls the reader in to an intimacy with this middle school aged boy who saw his best friend shot and is now looking for his body.

Dong-ho also feels guilty about his friend because when the shooting began, Dong-ho ran away and his friend did not. His guilt and desperation take him to the Provincial Office where bodies that have been recovered are taken for families to come and identify. His friend’s body is not there and hoping it might be eventually, Dong-ho volunteers to help.

It is not spoiling anything to tell you Dong-ho is killed, murdered point blank with a few other boys who leave the building unarmed and with their hands in the air. Dong-ho’s murder drives much of the rest of the story, the feelings of anger and guilt and grief that haunt the college students who were there and survived, the college students who told Dong-ho to walk out with his hands up so he would be spared.

After Dong-ho, is a chapter in the voice of his friend’s ghost. We learn why his body never was taken to the Provincial Office. It is gut wrenching and horrific as the army piles up bodies and prepares to burn them. This boy is in the pile but his spirit and those of others are hovering around, watching. He is unable to see the faces of the men piling up the bodies and tells us:

I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as the blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.

From here the story moves ahead in time to 1985 and a woman who was a college student and volunteered in the Provincial Office with Dong-ho. She is an editor now and haunted by Dong-ho’s death:

After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral.

Then we are in 1990 and a former student who was held in prison and tortured is telling the story of what happened to a college professor who is trying to write a history of events:

Now do you understand? The kids in the photo aren’t lying side by side because their corpses were lined up like that after they were killed. It’s because they were walking in a line. They were walking in a straight line, with both arms in the air, just like we’d told them to.

And in 2002 is the voice of a former factory worker who was on a bus to the square in front of the Provincial Office for protest and saw Dong-ho’s death through the bus window. Some on her bus were also killed. She was taken to prison. She is asked by Yoon, a student writing a dissertation, to record what happened to her on tape (trigger warning for the quote):

Yoon has asked you to remember. To ‘Face up to those memories,’ to ‘bear witness to them.’

But how can such a thing be possible?

Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a foot-long wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus?
Twenty years lie between that summer and now…But you’ve turned your back on all that. On spat curses, the abrupt smack of water against skin. The door leading back to that summer has been slammed shut; you’ve made sure of that. But that means that the way is also closed that might have led back to the time before. There is no way back to the world before the torture. No way back to the world before the massacre.

Next it is 2010 and Dong-ho’s mother is talking to us. And finally, the last chapter is 2013 and it is the author, Han Kang. It turns out she was born and raised in Gwangju. She was ten in 1980 when the uprising happened. In the chapter she goes to see Dong-ho’s house but it has been torn down. The book ends with Kang at the cemetery lighting candles on the graves of Dong-ho and two other boys.

Human Acts is a horrific book. Even years and decades after the initial events, there is no reprieve; the past haunts the present and the death of one boy affects the lives of many. You would think a book like this would be utterly depressing but I did not find it so. It is tragic which is not the same thing. I cried a few times. The things we humans do to each other, for what? Why? Dong-ho’s friend does not get his why answered and Kang does not even try to answer it either. I don’t know if anyone can.