I wait for time to wash me away like muddy water. I wait for death to come and wash me clean, to release me from the memory of those other, squalid deaths, which haunt my days and nights.
~ Human Acts, Han Kang
Han Kang writes of the 1980 Gwangju uprising in Korea. Few in the US are familiar with this episode in South Korean modern, post-Korean War history. The official numbers of 144 civilians and 127 civilians wounded, 76 MIA and presumed dead are disputed, with estimates of actual civilian death between one and two thousand. The work, despite taking on such a historical moment, is solely in the hands of the characters, not an outside narrator describing war and violence from afar. This allows the reader to experience the horror and intensity from multiple perspectives.
Han Kang’s novel, despite taking on such a historical moment, is solely and firmly in the hands of the characters, not an outside narrator describing war and violence from afar. This allows the reader to experience the horror and intensity from multiple perspectives.
The narrative is not straightforward and each is chapter is narrowly focused, yet all connect. Six voices, sometimes speaking to “you” – the audience, the survivors, the victims are bookended by the translator’s introduction and the author’s epilogue. The characters all experienced the worst of their fellow humans and so question their own humanity, and what it means to live in a world where the unthinkable occurred.
The narrative moves from 1980 to 2010 showing the long-term effects on individuals and ends with the epilogue in 2013 with Han Kang recalling her own journey to understand the events and impact on a nation. Only through the finished novel does a larger picture of the cost of ‘history’ begin to emerge. The intensely personal aspect provides a powerful lens to examine the issues of such rebellions and the horrors inflicted on those who dare challenge the powerful.