By Han Kang
Hogarth. 224 pp. $22
Reviewed by Mike Fischer
In May 1980, the South Korean government turned its guns on its own people, murdering hundreds in the city of Gwangju who had been protesting a military coup.
In Human Acts, South Korean writer Han Kang - winner of the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian - gives us their story, presented in this short novel through seven interwoven vignettes featuring characters who either died in Gwangju in 1980 or are struggling to make sense of it.
Han begins with the story of 15-year-old Dong-Ho, drawn into the fray as a volunteer identifying and watching over bodies of the unburied dead after Jeong-dae, his 15-year-old friend, is gunned down. Speaking from beyond the grave, Jeong-dae describes what it's like to be in a "tower" of burning corpses: "Water in the viscera hissed and boiled, until the organs dried and shriveled. Black smoke rolled off our rotten bodies in ragged, intermittent breaths, and in those places where there was nothing left to produce it the white gleam of bone was revealed."
Reading about what happened in Gwangju in 2013, a character identified as "The Writer" is repeatedly awakened during the final vignette by nightmares resulting from her research. Closely resembling Han herself, the writer compares the massacre to "radioactive matter" that turns cells cancerous so that "life attacks itself."
We watch that toxicity at work during the intervening vignettes. Two women who had watched over the corpses with Dong-Ho look back, one from 1985 and the second from 2002. They sandwich the account of a first-year college student and protest organizer, who later endures such horrific torture he himself can't tell us his story; instead it's delivered secondhand. We also hear from Dong-Ho's grieving mother, still whispering to her dead son's picture every morning, 30 years later.
Despite Deborah Smith's poetic translation, reading about human acts like these can be excruciating. But Han's book is also filled with profiles in courage. "It seemed we'd all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person's tender skin coming into grazed contact with another," one character writes. In a novel whose heroes include editors, actors, and writers - each battling to remember while censors try to forget - Han's own book embodies the miracle this passage describes.
This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.