Saturday 27 May 2017

Human Acts

(May 2017)

Despite the facts that South Korea is just across the water from the island I currently call home, and that aspects of its history loom (disproportionately?) large in the realm of Japan’s diplomatic efforts, I understand its recent past in only the broadest of strokes.

There were the Japanese wars and occupations, ancient and modern. (One of the more noticeable things about my two trips to Korea was how every temple or palace I went to had, somewhere on its grounds, a plaque or notice displaying almost exactly the same message. “This palace/temple was erected by the Emperor Whatshisface in the year longago. It was blessed by the Priest Thatbloke and played host to the wedding of Princess Lady and Prince Guy in sometime. It was burned to the ground by the Japanese in 1592. And again in 1939.) There were, inescapably, the comfort women. There was McArthur and the Korean War, then some sort of military dictatorship, then whoosh: skyscrapers, Samsung, Gangnam Style and D.Va I am, it’s fair to say, a little hazy on the details.

Human Acts covers the tail end of the military government, and is another book which drives home not only how scandalously little I know about recent Asian history, but also how recent much of it really is. We’re talking “In My Lifetime” recent (just), in that it covers the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. The dictator Park Chung-hee (father of Park Geun-hye, who’s been in the news a bit herself recently) was assassinated in 1979, and the following year saw rise in democratic sentiment and a brutal government crackdown, notably in the southern city of Gwangju. Estimates for the death toll vary from the official 200, to the 2000 suggested by foreign press, and those civilians the government deemed culpable were incarcerated and tortured. The uprising has come to be seen as a key points in South Korea’s transition to a modern democracy. I knew none of this a month ago.

Han is originally from Gwangju, but her family left a short while before the uprising. Her immediate relations escaped the worst of the atrocities, but a boy who used to lodge with them did not, and this child’s experiences form the germ of the novel. Han tells us this in the final chapter of her remarkable book, each previous one being told from a different point of view: naïve students caught up in the violence, a child’s ghost, women who tended the dead, torture survivors, parents of those lost. The early tellings are contemporaneous to the uprising, but gradually move closer and closer to the present day, as those involved live and wrestle with its impacts on their lives. The final perspective is that of the author herself, as she revisits her hometown after decades away, finds her old family home demolished, and visits the grave of their former lodger and his dead friends.

I opened my bag and took out three candles. I stood one in front of each boy’s grave, knelt down and lit them. I didn’t pray. I didn’t close my eyes or observed a minute’s silence. The candles burned steadily.

This sort of clear-eyed absence of sentimentality runs through then entire book. That’s not to say it’s unemotional or fails to stick its colours to the mast—in places it’s absolutely devastating. The third chapter describes the experiences in later life of one of the woman who organised a makeshift morgue in the immediate aftermath of the violence. She was still a schoolgirl at the time, and Han’s portrayal of the social isolation and emotional barriers she subsequently erected around herself is agonising. The unadorned clarity of the writing heightens the emotional impact, and as a reader you end up with a burning desire for revenge or retribution on her behalf, all the while knowing that no such thing is going to happen.

I can’t think of another book I’ve read which so completely and unwaveringly fulfills the promise of its title. This could have so easily morphed into a State of The Nation novel, looking at where South Korea is now and where it has come from. That wouldn’t have been a bad book, necessarily, but it would have been a very different one. Han keeps the focus unrelentingly on individuals; wider forces can be intuited, but ultimately this is about people relating to people, humans to humans, and all that we do to each other.

Is it true that humans 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 is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravenous beast, a lump of meat?

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