South Korean author Han Kang has written two short novels translated into English in the past five years. In a time of global social movements for liberation like the mid-20th century, they would doubtless have been considered part of the literature of socio-political engagement. In the dyspeptic early 21st century, in the Age of Consequences that is now dawning, they are instead examples of what I would call a “literature of mourning.” What they are mourning for is the ever-less tenable idea that humanity is engaged in an irreversible process of triumph over its most destructive qualities.
Booker Prize winner The Vegetarian (2016) chronicled a seemingly average urban middle class woman’s disintegration and its consequences through the eyes of three people: the salaryman husband who overlooks and disdains her, the artist brother-in-law who becomes obsessed with her as an object of aestheticized desire, and the sister who tries hopelessly to understand and protect her, even as her own sham of a family collapses under the weight of her sister’s mania. As with many literary depictions of madness, the story exposes (for those who are willing to look) the appalling deficiencies in what is considered normal in contemporary life. The eponymous “unremarkable” woman, ignored or objectified by two domineering men, first tries to purge her carnivorous human identity, and then finally even any animal identity, as she seeks refuge in transforming herself into a kind of plant life.
With the second novel Human Acts, Han Kang enters more explicitly political territory. She tells the story of a historical event: the 1980 massacre of students and workers in the southern city of Gwangzu by the repressive South Korean government, headed by the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan.
Han’s excellent English translator, Deborah Smith, gives Anglophone readers a brief historical introduction. She also explains why this history is not just a long-covered scar but a recently re-opened wound. Chun Doo-hwan was the protégé of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s dictator for the preceding 20 years. Park’s assassination set the stage for Chun’s ascension only months before the massacre.
In 2013, the year before Human Acts was written, as Smith points out, Park’s daughter Park Geun-hye was elected president, and the memory of that bloody period rose up like an unquiet ghost. (Park Geun-hye, whose conservative pro-U.S. party has been mired in corruption and patronage scandals since the beginning of her administration, was impeached and removed from office earlier this year. The regional ramifications continue to unfold, as North and South Korea play their proxy roles in the intensifying zone-of-influence jousting between the U.S. and China.)
Unquiet ghosts are central to the Human Acts narrative. As in The Vegetarian, a central event is seen through the eyes of multiple characters (seven this time). The opening section is the voice of a schoolboy, Dong-ho, whose life and death are the point of contact for the rest. The second section is told by an “actual” ghost, a friend who is speaking post-mortem, as his murdered body is being taken away to be destroyed by soldiers. The stories interweave, over more than 30 years; all are aspects of a single story, and it is not an uplifting one. It is the story of the consequences of organized violence and repression that, so far, are an inescapable part of human existence. Of the death-in-life that survivors of torture, massacre or the murder of loved ones experience: an irrevocable, pervasive poisoning of their lives that is not in any sense a “triumph,” as survival is often portrayed in popular films.
Han Kang’s courage as a writer lies in her ability to stare at the events with an almost microscopic (yet somehow not clinical or jaded) eye, and find the details that give universal expression in individual lives: the seven slaps an editor receives when she refuses to disclose to an official the name of the man who translated a subversive theater piece, and the exact nature of the marks produced on her face; the wound that having a ballpoint pen driven into the flesh between his thumb and forefinger leaves in an ex-prisoner, and the feeling that rises in him whenever he sees one of those innocuous objects decades later. Han knits the toxic intimacy of physical abuse together with the prolonged bleeding-out of mind and spirit. Again, as in The Vegetarian, the body of blood and flesh is the solid field upon which all the poisonous abstraction of power and its justifications play out.
In the author’s epilogue, her fictionalized self describes how the Gwangzu massacre rose out of enforced oblivion to find itself in her consciousness a generation later. In the course of her research, she says:
I read an interview with someone who had been tortured; they described the aftereffects as “similar to those experienced by the victims of radioactive poisoning.” Radioactive matter lingers for decades in muscle and bone, causing chromosomes to mutate. Cells turn cancerous, life attacks itself.
This slow poisoning of the individual life is one effect; the other is the collective denial and attempt to obliterate memory, which turn both the living and the dead into unquiet ghosts.
Another of translator Smith’s helpful additions is to point out several of the novel’s untranslatable aspects. For example, there are the multiple meanings that cluster around the word “uprising.” She tells us the novel contains dozens of examples: “come out, come forward, emerge, surface, rise up, which suggests an uprising of another kind. The past, like the bodies of the dead, hasn’t stayed buried… one of the main Korean words to remember mean[s] literally ‘to rise to the surface.’”
Most political uprisings are quelled when soldiers kill their fellow citizens en masse. This act is usually successful because it proves there is no moral limit on how far a state will go to preserve its power, and thus all other pretexts for its existence are demonstrably false. Resistance withers; it has nowhere to go unless it can replace the state – in which case, in its triumph, it becomes the very thing it has been fighting. Less successful is the attempt to repress memory and historical fact. But until it wells to the social surface again, it festers in the individuals who experienced the denied reality, and many of them will die of its effects. Even if their bodies survive, they will be ghosts of history.
Han Kang is a writer from a family of writers, and already well-known in Korea. Her first novel was published there over 20 years ago. She brings this new genre, this literature of mourning, to the West now, where it serves as a harsh but necessary tonic in a culture from which the old eternally progressive fantasies are draining fast. She leaves open and ambiguous the question of any greater meaning in human life, given that down all the millennia, civilizations have not ceased to reduce living human beings to poisoned and broken objects made of meat and bone, when power demands it. If there is meaning to be found, it is in the act of remembering, even if we can only mourn, not celebrate the remembrance.