Han Kang was born in 1970 in Kwangju, a provincial city near the tip of the Korean Peninsula with a population, at the time, of around six hundred thousand. Her father, Han Seung-won, is a noted novelist and the recipient of numerous literary awards. (In the past decade, Han has won many of the same prizes.) Both of Han’s brothers are writers, too. Her father was a teacher as well as a writer, and the family moved frequently for his work. As a child, Han attended five different elementary schools, and she sought constancy in books.
The family left Kwangju, for Seoul, in 1980, when Han was ten, shortly after Chun Doo-hwan, a general nicknamed the Butcher, seized power in a coup and declared martial law. Peaceful student demonstrations in Kwangju were met with violence: soldiers shot, bayonetted, and beat protesters and bystanders. A civilian militia, made up of students and workers, took weapons from local police stations and forced the Army into a temporary retreat in the city’s suburbs. The event, which has been compared to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, lasted nine days; at least two hundred, if not two thousand, people died (the government estimate is about tenfold fewer than unofficial tallies). Though Han’s family did not suffer personal losses in the massacre, the name of her birth city became, for her, a metonym for “all that has been mutilated beyond repair.”
“Human Acts,” Han’s most recent novel, also translated by Smith, tells the story of the massacre. It begins with a fifteen-year-old boy, Dong-ho, waiting for a rainstorm and for the return of the military, which has filled his city with dead bodies and separated him from his best friend. Dong-ho goes out to look for his friend but is recruited by demonstrators to catalogue corpses housed in a local government building. (The morgue is full.) There the boy encounters death’s methodical attack upon the flesh—the way open wounds are the first to rot and how toes “swelled up like thick tubers of ginger” into the most grisly shade of black.
Strains of South Korea’s national anthem periodically filter into the building; it is sung during the funeral rites being held outside. When Dong-ho asks why the mourners sing the anthem—“As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them”—the others react with surprise. “But the generals are rebels, they seized power unlawfully,” one responds. “The ordinary soldiers were following the orders of their superiors. How can you call them a nation?” Dong-ho realizes that the question he really wants to ask is much larger, and more abstract, or perhaps it is a bundle of questions, about the persistence of cruelty and the meaning of freedom. His epiphany echoes In-hye’s realization, in “The Vegetarian,” that her survival has not been a triumph but its opposite, because it has come at the cost of her dignity.
In the fourth chapter, after the military has retaken Kwangju, Dong-ho, hands raised in surrender, is shot and killed by soldiers. Each of the novel’s chapters focusses on a person affected by his short life: the high-school student who grows up to be an editor tasked with censoring the facts of the massacre; the undergraduate turned political prisoner who ultimately commits suicide; the factory girl who becomes a labor activist; Dong-ho’s mother, who remains haunted, every day, by her son’s death. The book experiments extensively with second-person narration, and Han plays with that “you” throughout it, inscribing the reader and implicating us in the wreckage.
The book’s most striking chapter is “The Boy’s Friend, 1980,” which centers on Jeong-dae, a classmate of Dong-ho’s who was fatally shot when the two boys went out to watch the crowds. Dong-ho crouched in the shadow of a building, watching his friend’s feet twitch as rescue attempts led to the murder of others, and, finally, as soldiers dragged off the dead. The story of Jeong-dae is narrated by his soul, tethered to his corpse as it drains of blood at the base of a growing mountain of bodies, like a wilted balloon caught in the branches of a tree. As Dong-ho teaches us the language of dead bodies, Jeong-dae elucidates the struggles of a soul as it comprehends its body’s death. Souls that touch one another but can’t quite connect are described as “sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass only to wordlessly slide away, outdone by whatever barrier was there.”
Unlike Dong-ho, who tries to resist his memories, burying them in shame, Jeong-dae seeks refuge in his past as a way of avoiding the sight of his mangled corpse. In Han’s books, those who distance themselves from their histories are fated to live lives worth barely more than death. The characters who embrace their own horrors at least have the hope of freedom. Unspooling the story of such memories is painful, but there is also relief in the diagnosis of the injury.
In an essay about translating “Human Acts,” published in the online magazine Asymptote, Deborah Smith describes reading Han’s work and being “arrested by razor-sharp images which arise from the text without being directly described there.” She quotes a couple of her “very occasional interpolations,” including the striking phrase “sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass.” Charse Yun, in his essay about “The Vegetarian,” declares his admiration for Smith’s work but argues that it is a “new creation.” Smith insists that the phrases she added are images “so powerfully evoked by the Korean that I sometimes find myself searching the original text in vain, convinced that they were in there somewhere, as vividly explicit as they are in my head.”
This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation. One might compare it to the collaborative work of a writer and an editor; Han has said that the process, for her and Smith, involves considerable back-and-forth, “like having a chat endlessly.” The latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind. (Yun cites Ezra Pound’s “Cathay.”) And yet what Smith describes is the effect that any writer might hope to coax from her reader: a feeling so visceral that it’s as if she had absorbed the text into her own experience. It also seems deeply in tune with Han’s purpose as a writer. In 2015, Han wrote about a translation workshop that she attended in England, during which Smith and others labored to turn one of her stories from Korean into English. In an essay about the experience, Han describes a dream she had while she was there. “Someone was lying in a white bed, and I was quietly watching them,” she writes. (The essay was also translated by Smith.) Though the sleeping figure’s face was covered by a white sheet, she could hear what the person was saying. “I have to get up now . . . no, that’s too flat.” Then “I really will have to get up now . . . no, that’s too bland.” And: “I have to leave this bed . . . no, that’s awkward.” A good translation, Han’s subconscious seems to suggest, is a living, breathing thing, which must be understood on its own terms, discovered from beneath the great white sheet. Han recalls, “In the session that morning, everyone enjoyed hearing about my dream. (I have come to realise that it is possible for someone’s nightmare to make many people happy.)”