South Korea is such a prosperous democratic republic that it's easy to forget that the country was under military dictatorship as recently as 1987. Easy, at least, from the outside — in South Korea, everyone over 30 has lived through authoritarian rule, which might explain why millions have turned out for the ongoing protests against the current president Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee.
Author Han Kang — who won the Man Booker International prize last year for her first novel translated into English, "The Vegetarian" — was born in Gwangju in 1970. In May 1980, just months after Han moved to Seoul, Gwangju became the site of a democratic uprising and a brutal government-ordered massacre. Han grapples with this violent history in her engrossing new novel, "Human Acts."
The book centers on the death of a 15-year-old boy named Dong-ho, killed with an unknowable number of others during the uprising that made "Gwangju" "become another name for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down, and brutalized, for all that has been mutilated beyond repair."
Dong-ho is not among the first to die — he leaves the relative safety of his home to look for his missing neighbors and ends up volunteering to watch over the growing number of unidentified corpses in the municipal gymnasium. The book opens with these bodies — the first chapter is told from the boy's point of view, and takes place predominantly among these "silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink." Dong-ho and fellow civilian volunteers Eun-sook, Seon-ju, and Jin-su oversee the handling, transfer, and identification of the dead. There are logistical issues — the city has run out of coffins, for starters — but these are not what trouble Dong-ho. Instead, he asks, "Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi [the national flag]? As though it wasn't the nation itself that had murdered them." He wonders about the souls of the dead, and keeps candles burning in bottles by each body.
"Human Acts" is told from the viewpoints of different characters, all connected to Dong-ho. His lost neighbor — Dong-ho's friend Jeong-dae, also just a boy — narrates after his own death, from a rotting pile of corpses stacked in the shape of a cross. Eun-sook and Seon-ju have chapters, as do Dong-ho's mother and a writer who serves as a stand-in for Han Kang. As a whole, these sections make up a "psychological autopsy" — to borrow a phrase from a fictional professor at the edges of the book — of Gwangju and its victims, many of whom survived the massacre only to lose themselves in the tides of trauma.
The result is torturously compelling, a relentless portrait of death and agony that never lets you look away. Han's prose — as translated by Deborah Smith — is both spare and dreamy, full of haunting images and echoing language. She mesmerizes, drawing you into the horrors of Gwangju; questioning humanity, implicating everyone.
The book is filled with state violence — murder and torture, as well as the softer oppressive tools, like censorship and imprisonment — and its disempowering, dehumanizing effects. An ex-prisoner imagines the calculation behind the government's campaign of brutality: "We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals."
Like "The Vegetarian," "Human Acts" interrogates the relationship between body and soul, trying to find where, exactly, humanity resides in our animal forms. Han's writing is literally visceral, luxuriating in the gleaming nastiness of the body. "Watery discharge and sticky pus, foul saliva, blood, tears and snot, piss…. That was all that was left to me," says the former prisoner. "No, that was what I myself had been reduced to. I was nothing but the sum of those parts. The lump of rotting meat from which they oozed was the only 'me' there was." The imagery is often gory in a terrible, unflinching way: "The woman in school uniform wiped the face of a young man whose throat had been sliced open by a bayonet, his red uvula poking out."
Relentless mass violence goes a long way toward obscuring the beauty of individual life, and raises questions about whether the essence of humanity is even worth pinning down and understanding: "Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species?" one character asks. "It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it's as though it is imprinted in our genetic code."
Yet "Human Acts" isn't devoid of warmth, even if almost all of its moving moments grow out of deep suffering. Two torture survivors establish a friendship based on alcohol and shared trauma; a man cleans his brother's skull, "polish[ing] the teeth one by one."
Han makes extensive use of the second person — more than a third of the book is written in this mode. This is a bold choice, and it doesn't always pay off ("Your hair is cropped short. You are wearing jeans and ultramarine sneakers"), but the overall impact is unnerving and painfully immediate.
Even the first and third person sections are sprinkled with moments of second-person asides, addressing Dong-ho or other silent interlocutors who start to feel a lot like, well, you. At the end of this chapter, the ex-prisoner confronts the unseen professor interviewing him about his experiences: "So tell me … what answers do you have for me? You, a human being just like me."
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough."