In May 1980, there were a series of uprisings at Gwangju, a city in southern South Korea and an important production centre. Protests, at first peaceful, had simmered since President Park Chung-hee’s assassination the previous year (October 1979), but with the military leader Chun Doo-hwan’s assumption of power via a coup in December, the opposition took on a more violent, sustained form.

It was led by university students, teachers and soon spread to workers and other citizens, who, once the threat of a military intervention became clear, armed themselves, by looting armouries and local police station. The days between May 18 and 27 witnessed some of the most violent moments of the uprising, as all opposition was suppressed brutally. Estimates have varied on the numbers who perished in the crackdown and its aftermath.

In the weeks that ensued, the government attempted to erase all evidence; even those killed were buried secretly. It was only in 1997 that victims of the uprising were honoured when May 18 was designated as Memorial Day. The cemetery, where the victims were buried, was given the status of a national cemetery.

This is the background provided by Deborah Smith in her translation of Han Kang’s Human Acts, a novel set in Gwangju. Smith had earlier translated Han Kang’s multiple prize-winning The Vegetarian.

The essence of being human

The title of the book is revealing, but has its hidden intents too. Its many interconnected stories spread out from 1980 to the present, telling of the many victims of the Uprising – those who died, the survivors, and even its present-day victims, who were too young at the time – touching on the theme of people’s struggles, the legitimate history of resistance that can never be suppressed.

And while Kang’s graphic recounting is about the inhumane, wicked acts of soldiers and police, acting at the behest of the military government, it is vitally about the human need to resist, to protect one’s own, to suffer, and to remember. The novel is, in every sense, about what it means to be human.

The many implications, challenges and possibilities of being truly human, has been one of Kang’s primary concerns. Yeong-hye, the unhappily married woman, and the “vegetarian” of Kang’s earlier novel, in her protest and resistance, wants to lose all sense of what being human really means. In her act of expiation, Yeong-hye wants to be a tree, wanting nothing apart from life’s necessities, rooted to the ground, watchful and waiting.

In Human Acts, this search of being human transcends the sensations the body experiences, to necessary and even unforeseen acts of remembering. It also dwells, via a daring act of writing (and translation), on the immediate phase of when one is not quite human. It seeks to give words to things beyond human, to those souls who live in an undefinable transient phase.

Human Acts also continues the tradition of novels recording the immense transformation, following the Second World War, of South Korea, under political authoritarianism. The Dwarf (1978) by Cho Se-hui, translated by Bruce and Jo-chan Fulton, in a series of linked stories (as is, by some coincidence, Human Acts), is about the brutal economic transformation of a Seoul neighbourhood, at great costs to its old-time inhabitants, who fail to “measure” up to the new order. Gwangju too, saw immense regulation and forced development from the 1970s onward. The 1980 resistance wasn’t just to a one-off political event, but a protest over the brutal, authoritarian transformation of a certain way of life.

Han Kang. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Acts of betrayal

At the beginning of the novel, Dong-ho (though we learn his name and age much later) is out on the streets, despite all the warnings of the impending intervention of the military. But he’s looking for a friend. A search that makes him look for bodies brought into the university gymnasium, and tend to them, though they lie mutilated and desecrated in every measure. Dong-ho considers his abandonment of a friend a betrayal; something he will, even after death, remain unforgiven for. To be human then is to be loyal. But his resistance, and those of others, has a larger motive as will be apparent in other stories too. Resistance, is most times, simply necessary.

To be human is the realisation that there is something beyond human. Jeong-dae, lying among other dead, thinks of all the dead bodies heaped up, ignominiously and neglected, on the hill. He has a sense of death, and those fleeting, indescribable moments when the soul is part of the body and yet isn’t. He has the sense of decomposition, the moment when his soul connects with another, in wordless ways.

“It must have been midnight when I felt it touch me – the breath-soft slip of incorporeal something, that faceless shadow, lacking even language, now, to give it body. I waited for a while, in doubt and ignorance, of who it was, of how to communicate with it. No one had ever taught me how to address a person’s soul.”

The story of the editor, some years after the Uprising, follows. She is threatened by the censors and is slapped humiliatingly by one of them. She remembers the slaps, resolving to forget them, one by one, in the days that follow. Then, strangely, the play is enacted despite the censorship and the erasing of several passages in the text. To be human is to believe in infinite possibilities of the written word.

Why one remembers

The former prisoner, who has found work as a cabby, recounts his own story. But his story is more about a comrade, one of the older student leaders, and who, as the narrator witnesses, experiences a slow painful disintegration – not just from the physical torture but from guilt. Being human is the desperate need to forget and one’s inability to do so.

The factory worker and one-time activist, Jeong-mi, has retreated into a quiet life. Despite being approached by a writer, she does not want to relive the memories of the Uprising. Yet, they have a life of their own. The ghosts of her past, the lives lost, remain a living presence. Being human is to remember against that pain.

The boy’s mother has never ceased mourning for him, and yet she repents the choice she made on that fateful day. Being human is to acknowledge love and guilt. The writer herself (this isn’t non-fiction, however) makes up the last story. She remembers living in the house where Dong-ho once did. And a forgotten yearbook of that time makes her look for his story.

Being human is to promise, that history, even small histories, must never be forgotten. Dong-ho, from someone, who is just one of the many victims of the uprising, a loved son and friend, becomes in Han Kang’s last story set in the present, someone still living, an enduring presence. To be human is to remember – and to remember honourably – and to live on.

This translation is, in places, uneven, with the inflection and the voice changing, often in the same chapter, but even this has an impact. Human Acts is a book that emphasises the ennobling act of being human – there’s inevitability to some human actions, but in the choices one makes, howsoever small, being human is the most dignified, humane thing one could do.

Human Acts, Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, Portobello Books.