Human Acts is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read. The descriptions of such overt violence and the suffering of the characters is hard to bear, knowing you are powerless in this story. I had never heard of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising or the Korean dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. I could not believe this book was historical fiction, that the Gwangju Uprising isn’t known or even remembered in most of the world. There are only estimates of how many people were killed, 600, almost all students or young adults, the youngest of victims still in middle school. The story follows six main characters: Dong-ho, a fifteen year old boy who is looking for his best friend, his best friend who unbeknownst to Dong-ho has already been killed, an editor struggling against censorship, a prisoner being tortured for his involvement in the demonstrations, a factory worker being pestered by an author to share her story, and the best friend’s grieving mother as each recalls their involvement, their torture and their nightmarish trauma.
Originally written in Korean, I wondered what had been lost or muddled in the translation. Given the massacre was in 1980, most Koreans are probably aware of what happened and have knowledge regarding the political climate of the time. I, however, was completely unaware of these events, and found myself a little lost because of the absence of context. Context isn’t necessary to read the book and understand what happened, but knowing why would certainly enhance the reading process. As Korea was plagued by political instability following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Park’s protégé assumed power through a coup d’état and implemented martial law, believing North Korea was going to attack the South. Chun ordered universities and political activities to shut down and sent the military to occupy all urban areas to police citizens. However, due to the handover in political power, the democratization movement was gaining momentum, having been previously suppressed by Park. On the 18th of May, protesting the closure of their university, some 200 students gathered and military troops clamped down, killing an unknown number by clubbing, using bayonets and firing into the crowd. Two days later, the number of protestors swelled to over 10,000, and Chun ordered an all-out suppression by killing anyone involved. On May 27th, civilian militias had been defeated the Korean military.
In the epilogue, Kang writes about her recollections of the Gwangju Uprising at age nine. Her family had just moved from Gwangju where her father had been a teacher at a local school. She recalls her father and aunt speaking in low voices in the kitchen about a young student named Dong-ho who was killed during the massacre. The novel centers around Dong-ho, a boy who goes looking for his best friend, Jeong-dae who has disappeared during the uprising. Jeong-dae and his older sister lived in Dong-ho’s family home on the top floor and they had been as close as brothers. Dong-ho doesn’t know if Jeong-dae was killed or was injured, so he goes to where the bodies have been sent and is roped into helping cover the newly arrived corpses as family members come looking for their lost loved ones. Completely overwhelmed, Dong-ho goes to the center of the action looking for his friend and is murdered. He is fifteen.
Each chapter weaves through each character’s past and present, as even the deceased characters recall the time of their deaths, their aspirations and the trauma inflicted on their bodies. The prisoner recalls the routine torture and what happened after finally being released. He’s haunted by the years in prison, by the pen used to inflict pain, by the face of the prisoner he was forced to split meals with. He’s haunted by the suicide of acquaintances, the visceral dreams he experiences and the drone of life he struggles to live. Kang makes clear how each of the characters suffer in profound ways even after they are released from prison and are no longer being physically tortured. Drowning in grief and anger, confusion and hysteria, no two characters suffer in the same way, yet they are bound to constantly reliving traumatic memories both while awake and asleep.
After reading Human Acts I find myself questioning why all this violence is possible in so many permutations. Is violence a cycle? A default? A norm? I would think that the Japanese Occupation in Korea, World War II, the Korean War, these events would drive all Koreans to put peace above all, but it seems ego triumphs no matter what. The Gwangju Uprising, where thousands of students tried to incite political change peacefully ended up being one of the most violent demonstrations in modern history. I feel grateful that Kang and those she spoke to were able to find it in themselves to speak about the events that occurred just decades ago so that readers like myself might stumble across the book and try to understand why things like this happen. Grief and terror are such universal emotions, and Kang’s novel transmits these feelings tenfold to the reader, leaving you stunned and longing for peace.
“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us us capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered– is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”