Reading Human Acts

10 day insurgency in Gwangju and the aftermath

I’ve never experienced true pain, true unending mental and physical anguish. I’ve never been starving, or starved, never been truly under someone else’s thumb, their dominance. I’ve never been locked in a tiny cell and repeatedly beaten until I admit something I cannot, because nothing will satisfy my jailor. I’ve never been caught in this cycle with no knowledge of when it might end.

I’ve never experienced real pain. This is what rolled around in my head as I finished Han Kang’s Human Acts. When I shut the book, it felt like I was coming out of a daze; the tube seemed over lit, the people strangely smiling, like they were in on a joke I didn’t get. I was disorientated, I ended up walking around aimlessly and sitting down at another train station. I wasn’t getting a train, I was trying to get my bearings. One of the railway station attendants handed me a card for a free coffee. I don’t know whether this was a comment on my appearance or a drop in the ocean attempt at a Southern Train’s PR campaign. I got the coffee and walked out into the cold.

On that same day across the Atlantic, in a country with a far better and more dangerous PR campaign, Trump was claiming the validity of torture, proposing the re-opening of prison ‘black sites’ and a return to waterboarding. While in Kang’s novel I was reading about its realities and consequences.

I stumbled across Human Acts thinking that the translator’s introduction was the beginning. Deborah Smith‘s opening sets the scene of Gwangju, South Korea in 1980 where a student uprising has been brutally crushed by government forces. The novel itself, however, is lyrical rather than historical.  It’s a journey through multiple layers of pain; through the reverberations of loss, of torture, of suppression and injustice and how it is felt across the generations. It recounts the nameless piles of bodies that people tried to claim as each night the piles grew greater. The bottles of ethanol downed each night to be able to shut off the subconscious, the handfuls of sleeping pills, the lives lost – of those who died but also those who lived, who tried to comprehend the pain, the cruelty, the sorrow; who tried to forget.

I fumbled my way through the book in all sorts of public places – buses, trains, tubes and cafes. Around me, I was constantly surrounded by a background of banality. A group of students discussed getting wasted on tiny bottles of vodka, a mother blatantly ignored her child in favour of her phone as he yelled in her face, a rotating table at a café discussed the art on the walls, while another discussed their plans for the weekend, and one man repeatedly laughed and stared at a small phrase on a magazine’s cover. This chatter seemed trivial in comparison to what I was reading.

I’ve never experienced true unending anguish. A pain that doesn’t pass with time, because it wasn’t natural, it wasn’t even irrational, it isn’t understandable. It was brutality meted out not for answers, but for the ‘right ones.’ The torturer is never looking to hear the truth, they’re looking to hear the truth they already ‘know’, the truth they already suspect. With every blow, every humiliation, every death they’re waiting for you to cower and bow down, to submit to their version of events; their truth.

Towards the end of the novel we learn that Han Kang as a child narrowly missed the torture and bloody suppression that left seemingly unending piles of bodies in the streets, yet she carried these stories and images with her.  In Human Acts she delves into the rippling effect of pain and loss; how its centre-point, like the epicentre of an earthquake, wrecks not just those within the firing line, but those on the out-skirts who are only tangentially connected. It rips apart and fractures a sense of self, of safety, of trust.

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