The day I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of my fellow civilians, staring down the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, the day the bodies of those first two slaughtered were placed in a handcart and pushed at the head of the column, I was startled to discover an absence in side myself: the absence of fear.

  • Han Kang, Human Acts

The crisp autumn air blew gently across my face as I perched on the platform of Busan central station. It was a cold evening in mid November 2016 and I was about to board the train to Seoul. I’d been working in Korea’s southern coastal city for almost a year but the opportunity to travel to the capital was always exciting. A friend who was living there had agreed to show me around.

After a whole day of meandering through Seoul’s narrow alleyways, we passed by the open highways and flashing neon towers of the central Jongro district. Strolling up to the station we were confronted by something unexpected. There was a seemingly unending stream of people marching down the high road. Carrying banners. Chanting slogans. For a few minutes we stood and watched and the crowd continued to grow and advance down towards Gwanghwamun Square. I casually asked my friend what had caused this commotion and she told me it was a protest against the allegations of corruption surrounding president Park Geun-hye.

Intrigued, we followed the crowd for 20 minutes or so down the closed off road before arriving in the square. What we saw blew me away. A sea of hundreds of thousands of protesters sprawled across the huge open space, packing the place to the brim, each one of whom was carrying a tiny candle. A sprawling sea of stars in the cold autumn night.

The sheer scale of the protest was awe inspiring. I’d seen large protests, both violent and non-violent, back home but this was something else. Holding their candles out in front of them the crowd felt peaceful, yet organised and determined. My mind was racing. What could have possibly happened to cause a demonstration on this scale? What was the meaning of the hundreds of thousands of candles? As we worked our way through the crowd I turned to my friend and asked. She thought for a minute and slowly responded:

“They’re a symbol of peaceful protest. They’re there so the police don’t kill us.”

I was completely bewildered by this. So the police don’t kill us. Looking around there were hundreds of police buses and vans surrounding the square; riot police stood under the statue of the great Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin; others, in Roman-like formation, barricaded the entrance leading up to Gyeongbokgung Palace. She went on to tell me about a dark side of modern Korean history that I had been blissfully unaware of until that moment, but which many Koreans still live with the memory of: The Gwangju massacre.

In 1979, Park Chung-hee, military dictator of Korea and father of disgraced president Park Guen-hye, was assassinated and Korea was placed under martial law. However, at the beginning of 1980 demonstrations were starting to rise up all over the country. Students, professors, artists and many other ordinary citizens started to demand a free democratic election and the end of martial law. At this time Park’s favourite general and protege Chun Doo-hwan (later named ‘The Butcher’) saw an opportunity to seize power and took control of the country, extending full martial law across the nation, shutting down universities, banning political activity, and arresting student leaders and political rivals.

However, in the small southern city of Gwangju, the city where my friend was born and raised, military troops were sent in to brutally suppress any continued protests, indiscriminately assaulting both protesters and innocent bystanders alike. Multiple civilians were clubbed to death by the army causing outrage and anger amongst the population and increasing the crowds to the tens of thousands. The pro-democracy protesters faced the soldiers head on, demanding their rights, and demanding control back of their city.

But then the soldiers opened fire on the crowds.

Many innocent people died on that first day. However, the citizens of Gwangju managed to gather together weapons to arm themselves any way they could, and they fought back. In a defiant act of courage they forced the military presence out of the city, and in the days that followed Gwangju was able to govern itself without military intervention. Many women helped to cook meals to provide the community with food, and taxi drivers drove around the city ferrying pro-democracy rebels from place to place (as made famous in the recent Korean film A Taxi Driver.) The citizens of Gwangju banded together outside of gymnasiums and hospitals to donate blood to the wounded, and children as young as 12 years old helped to clean and identify the dead bodies.

Yet, the uprising in Gwangju lasted for merely a few days. On the 27th of May, Chun Doo-hwan gave the order (via a US-approved military operation) for soldiers to enter the city. They murdered thousands of Gwangju’s citizens.

The massacre left a deep scar in Korea’s collective memory, and the truth of the matter was suppressed for years afterwards, with Conservative accounts of the incident describing it as a Communist plot headed by North Korean sympathisers and drastically playing down the number of casualties. In her book Human Acts, author Han Kang describes that Gwangju had “become another name for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down, and brutalized, for all that has been mutilated beyond repair.”

Han’s novel is a phenomenal but extremely harrowing account of how the events of the Gwangju massacre, and the knock on effects of those events, have impacted the lives of those ordinary civilians who were involved, either directly or indirectly. It is a visceral and uncompromising portrayal of how a singular act of violence can leave wounds that go so deep into the psyche that they can never truly be healed. Han Kang, also born in Gwangju, explores the emotional ripples that spread out from a singular incident such as this. She rarely engages directly with the politics surrounding the event, instead her focus is on how and why human acts can lead to such destructive violence. In her own words:

Humans will not hesitate to lay down their own lives to rescue a child who had fallen onto the train tracks, yet are also perpetrators of appalling violence, like in Auschwitz. The broad spectrum of humanity, which runs from the sublime to the brutal, has for me been like a difficult homework problem ever since I was a child. You could say that my books are variations on this theme of human violence. Wanting to find the root cause of why embracing the human was such a painful thing for me, I groped inside my own interior, and there I encountered Gwangju.

Each chapter in Human Acts is told from the perspective of a different person, and each chapter takes a step away from the original incident by pulling the reader towards the present. We are given a deep psychological insight into the minds of various characters that have some connection to the atrocities committed in Gwangju. From the harrowingly banal descriptions of ‘The Boy’, Dong-ho, a 15 year old middle school student working in a gymnasium that has been converted into a makeshift morgue: “Your fingers clutching the still-warm candle stub, you bend down. Fighting the putrid stink, you look deep into the heart of the new flame. Its translucent edges flicker in constant motion, supposedly burning up the smell of death which hangs like a pall in the room.”

To the final comments from ‘The Writer’ who, during her long, emotionally draining journey in researching the novel, reflects on how she was personally, though indirectly, affected by those days in May 1980, when she was 9 years old: “I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there.”

The result of this experimentation in style, is a book that is as compelling as it is haunting; as powerful as it is shocking; and beautiful as it is brutal. Deborah Smith’s masterful translation truly brings out the raw and uncompromising, yet dreamy and surreal nature of Han Kang’s writing, and brings with it an emotional connection between the author, translator and reader that is rare to find in translations of languages as disparate as Korean and English. At the end the reader is left with a sense of more than having just read a book, but having delved into the memories of the characters than Han portrays.

Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded. The world darkens, like electric bulbs going out one by one.

But as electric bulbs go out, and the world darkens, the candlelight still remains. Reading this book brought back the memory of that cold autumn night in Gwanghwamun Square, the candles flickering in breeze, a reminder to the Korean government that the people won’t let history repeat itself. Never again will the public give those in power in the excuse to suppress the will of the people with force and brutality. Three years after the completion of Human Acts, Han Kang was there in Gwanghwaman Square, along with me, my friend, and over a million other Koreans. 

I, too, was in the streets, holding up a flame of my own. At the time, we called it the “candlelight rally” or “candlelight demonstration”; we now call it our “candlelight revolution.”

We only wanted to change society through the quiet and peaceful tool of candlelight, and those who eventually made that into a reality — no, the tens of millions of human beings who have dignity, simply through having been born into this world as lives, weak and unsullied — carry on opening the doors of cafes and teahouses and hospitals and schools every day, going forward together one step at a time for the sake of a future that surges up afresh every moment. Who will speak, to them, of any scenario other than peace?

The candles lit by Dong-ho for his fallen countrymen in Human Acts are both a symbol of mourning and a symbol of hope. The candlelight protests of 2016 which, through the peaceful actions of it’s citizens, led to the impeachment of a corrupt president, symbolized those same things. Han Kang’s message in Human Acts is clear: let us never forget Gwangju. 

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