Halfway through this book, I tweeted about the nightmares it was causing me. And I’m not talking about Stephen King ghosts or monsters, but live human cruelty. They weren’t dreams like others I have had, revolving staircases, or sudden drops into homes I knew, but had been subtly changed by my dream space. These dreams were as visceral as the words on the page. I felt the steel copper bullet – plunge – slow motion into my rib cage. Each bone flex forth and open like a cracked fence post. When I woke up each morning, I had stones in my belly, and gnarls in my gut. This story uprooted me.
And I wasn’t warned, so I’m warning all of you. This story conveyed the human capacity for cruelty so well and so often that I almost couldn’t finish it. While I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and a history that should not remain hidden, I want to scrape at the pieces of it that stayed in my mind for days afterwards. For a full three pages, Han Kang describes some of the Gwangju boys’ torture, the crisp sizzle of a cigarette to an eye. If you winced at that sentence, then I can’t recommend this book for you. It caused me physical pain to read.
(And I know some of you will roll your eyes and say that this is nothing to the physical pain that the people of Gwangju felt resisting and standing up to their traitorous government, but feelings are allowed to be felt).
Today, Amnesty International reported hangings of over 13,000 in Damascus. These hangings have been done secretly after victims are tried for under three minutes in a basement after being told they are being transported elsehwhere. We sit around arguing on Twitter over what’s fake news, or how many alternative facts will be spun in the administration currently in office, and in Damascus, Syrians are being targeted and wiped out by the thousands in Civil War. Until this moment, no news of these hangings had been released. This is probably not the fault of our news media, but the fact that this is happening in our modern world – after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Tinneman Square and now after the Gwangju uprising, maybe we need to be a little more “woke.”
I listened to this story on NPR having just finished Human Acts. I had been contemplating the number of stars I could give a book that I was hesitant to recommend, that I was angry no one had warned me about (most reviewers just said, “it has beautiful writing”) and disgusted with the bottom dark of human capacity put into elegant words on the pages of Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).
No where in my life have I had to contemplate the snap of a rope bruising and twisting my pale neck. Never the butt of a gun. Never a protest that could end in the spray of shrapnel. Comparing one’s life to another never makes anything easier, but I have been both lucky to be who I am, where I am, and lucky to read a book that makes me understand that luck is a physical phenomenon and not just a mental/emotional privilege. I can only speak for myself, but all I really wanted to do in hearing that report was spit it out so it couldn’t become a part of me, of my existence.
“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there” (202).
In the last chapter of this novel, the author becomes a character. She describes her journey seeking out information on the massacre itself, but also on the family written throughout. She is indirectly related to this family. They lived in the house she moved out of at a young age, and they lost a brother to the Gwangju uprising while living there. The narrator talks about her nightmares while researching the novel. I know why. I experienced nightmares as well. I texted my best friend, and Korean scholar, Seth and asked him about what was told to him about this while he was in South Korea. His first response when I began describing the book was “they don’t tell tourists those stories.”
I wonder how many stories are left dark in the world. How many shoved into corners, buried against one another, corked. This is no longer one of those cave stories, this mosaic novel of different voices interwoven. It is really a connection of short stories, some more difficult than others to get through. I believe Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do, make it so no one can desecrate these memories again.
“Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again” (214).
In the beginning, I found hope in the short anecdote about the chalk erasers and board spray from middle school between the loving sister and brother in the novel. I hung onto that for the rest of the novel because there isn’t much redeeming about the human spirit here. This is a novel that very much lacks the bud of hope. It doesn’t make it less true, it just, for me, makes it more sad. If we believed the world ended like this, I don’t think any of us would continue letting it fester.
“Isn’t he your friend, aren’t you a human being” (43).