The Reaches of Our Souls

Han Kang, Human Acts

Portobello, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781846275968

reviewed by David Renton

Human Acts is set during and after the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. Following the death of South Korea’s military ruler Park Chung-hee in 1979 and the seizure of power by another general Chun Doo-hwan, protesters called for the end of military rule. Paratroopers shot at the demonstrators, but the troops were resisted, with increasing numbers of people from across the city joining the demonstrations and the soldiers retreated. For five days the city was held by a Kwangju Commune, with citizen’s committees and a popular militia. South Korea’s army blamed the events on Communists and, with American approval, then retook the city, resulting in a final death toll of between 600 and 2,000 protesters.

The desire to write fiction about events of this scale hits against the limitations of the literary novel as a form. For two centuries, prose fiction has tended be about a certain kind of city-dweller, moneyed, articulate and cynical. In Britain in particular, literary fiction depicts private triumphs or defeats, not the ambitions of an insurgent crowd. The world gives us the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and the revolution in Syria; fiction’s answer is the self-satisfied vacuity of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005).

There is some sense in Human Acts of the energy of Gwangju at the moment of its independence. One of the characters, Eun-Sook, takes part in discussions following the army’s retreat as to whether the students should take arms. Another character, Kim Jin-Su, is present when the soldiers retake the university. ‘Even when the soldiers stormed up the stairs and emerged to us out of the darkness, none of our group fired their guns. It was impossible for them to pull the trigger knowing that a person would die if they did so. They were children. We had handed out our guns to children.’ The determined soldiers were equipped with 800,000 rounds of ammunition – two bullets for every person in the city.

Human Acts’ first narrator, Dong-ho, is present in 1980 at the time of the Commune, between the initial blood-letting and the final killings. The civilian militia has taken control of a gym where the corpses are being stored. Dong-ho is searching for the body of a dead friend. The boy attends the families searching among the corpses, ‘whose only action was that production of that horrible putrid smell.’

The boy’s friend, Jeong-dae, is the narrator of the second section. Killed in the earlier stages of the fighting, as was his sister, Jeong-mi, Jeong-dae flies above the city, observing as his own corpse blackens and swells and his features ulcerate until there is ‘nothing that could be recognised as me.’ The horror of these descriptions is both unsettling and necessary. Part of the cruelty of the soldiers, Human Acts insists, was that they would not even allow the families of the dead an ordinary burial. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, not even the dead were safe from the enemy when the enemy was victorious.

Other characters include a survivor who is being interviewed, with some reluctance, by an academic; a former member of a women’s trade union; the mother of the first narrator; and a woman who may be Han Kang herself, growing up around the stories of those who fought and those who died.

Several sections are narrated in the second person, including that of Dong-Jo, who finds himself at the start of a storm (the same word the author uses for the troops’ approach): ‘When you open your eyes properly, the trees’ outlines dim and blur. You’re going to need glasses before long.’ Dong-Jo is in a silent conversation with others, starting with Eun-Sook, a girl in the gym. He wants to ask her where the soul is located: ‘You fix on her eyes, which have become hollow and shadowed, and think, whereabouts in the body is that bird when the person is still alive?’ Later, Dong-Jo is thinking about Jeong-Dae, with whom he marched and whose death he witnessed. How long, he asks, do souls linger by the sides of their bodies? The second person narration mirrors Dong-Jo’s need to learn the fate of others.

Human Acts answers Dong-Jo’s metaphysical questions in the next chapter, narrated in the first person by the ghost of Jeong-Dae. The spectre begins tied to his physical remains (‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’), and as the chapter progresses he is liberated from them. Jeong-Dae thinks briefly of his former companion and then of his sister. The thoughts take him back to his own body, which he has temporarily rejoined, his screams leaking from him in blood and watery discharge. His soul without eyes meets his body which cannot see. Jeong-Dae dreams of his sister and imagines closing his corpse’s eyes. His last knowledge is of the death of Dong-Jo, with whom he has remained in silent communication.

No one could say that Human Acts is an easy book. In addition to the difficulty of the subject, the writing is opaque, with the relationships between the characters only taking form in the second or third reading. For long stretches it feels as if a heavy burden has been placed on the shoulders of the reader to supply the book’s meaning.

My favourite character was Eun-Sook, Dong-Jo’s companion in the gym who is later interrogated and assaulted. Five years after the killings, she is an editor. She works for a theatre producer who intends to put on a play marking the deaths. The script is censured, mutilated by an ink roller, which leaves the ‘the manuscript bloated and distended, water-logged flotsam washed up on some beach.’ The producer insists on proceeding. Has he conceded to the junta, or will the play go ahead? Han Kang’s solution – and her book – are deft and surprising.
David Renton is a barrister and the author of CLR James: Cricket’s Philosopher King.