Han Kang
Han Kang; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Han Kang, the South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, was nine years old in 1979 when a new military regime came to power in South Korea after a coup. Her family had just sold their house in Gwangju, where she had been born and raised, and moved to Seoul. The family that purchased it had two sons. Han’s father, a teacher, knew the younger of the two, a fifteen-year-old middle school student named Dong-ho.

Less than a year after Han’s family settled in Seoul, over 250,000 citizens of Gwangju protested against the declaration of martial law by Chun Doo-hwan, the new military strongman. Chun was called “the Butcher” for his savage tactics against dissidents; he had been a protégé of his predecessor Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian and brutally repressive president who was assassinated by his own director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency. During the Gwangju Uprising, which historians have compared to the Paris Commune (1871) and Tiananmen Square protests (1989), Chun deployed highly skilled South Korean paratroopers—trained to fight North Koreans—against the citizens of Gwangju. For a couple of days these untrained people, some of them armed with weapons taken from local police stations, managed to hold back Chun’s soldiers and form a civilian government. This didn’t last.

On the pretext of preventing Communist infiltration from North Korea, under Chun’s directive and with the tacit consent of the Carter administration, paratroopers, including the 7th Special Warfare Corps—considered Chun’s private army—bayoneted, clubbed, and shot children, university students, and women and men of all ages. Lee Jae-eui, a Gwangju student protester who was imprisoned and tortured for his participation and who later wrote the most important account of the Gwangju Uprising, remembered that “even at the very beginning of the operation, the corps was brutal and cruel, as if they had a license to kill. These were the same soldiers who had crushed revolts in Pusan and Masan the year before.” Among those killed was Dong-ho, the younger son of the family that had moved into Han Kang’s childhood home.

The siege in Gwangju lasted ten days. The number of the dead and missing remains disputed. Some estimates cite as few as 165 deaths, others as many as nearly two thousand. Chun’s soldiers destroyed and hid the bodies of those killed, a fact his government later denied. The infamous National Security Law, still in force today in a modified form, prevented anyone from publicly disputing the government’s statements about the uprising.

Han’s novel Human Acts, set against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising and spanning three decades, is a work of tremendous intellectual and philosophical ambition. It continues the inquiry into violence and self-determination that Han began in The Vegetarian, in which a housewife resists the strictures of her family life by gradually refusing to eat: a self-abnegation that literally diminishes her body. The rest of the book’s characters struggle to rationalize her increasingly erratic behavior. Plausible justifications for her fasting—health concerns, religious doctrine, faddishness—ultimately fail. Her rebellion, they are slow to realize, is against the idea of the family itself.

Han also writes about bodily suffering in harrowing detail throughout Human Acts, but here her characters are above all preoccupied with the nature of the soul. Where does it go after the body is destroyed? How do the soul and body separate? How do souls communicate with one another?

Human Acts consists of six chapters that center on different characters—innocent children, imprisoned and tortured students, a persecuted book editor, a “factory girl”—and a factual epilogue by the author. Han’s alternating use of first-, second-, and third-person points of view gives the book a polyphonic quality, but the setup is simple: during the tumultuous siege of Gwangju, two boys, Dong-ho and Jeong-dae, set out to find Jeong-dae’s older sister, Jeong-mi, who is missing. As they search for her in the crowds, Jeong-dae gets separated from Dong-ho. Snipers shoot Jeong-dae, and Dong-ho flees.

Later, Dong-ho goes to the makeshift mortuary in the Provincial Office to look for Jeong-dae and Jeong-mi. He does not find them. But Seon-ju and Eun-sook, two young female volunteers who are cleaning up bodies, enlist Dong-ho to help them. A university student, Jin-su, manages the small cadre of volunteers who care for the dead. When paratroopers descend on the Provincial Office, Dong-ho and the students who have not already fled surrender and are gunned down with their hands in the air. These six characters—Dong-ho, Jeong-dae, Jeong-mi, Seon-ju, Eun-sook, and Jin-su—form the symbolic community of Gwangju. The novel follows the arcs of their respective lives and deaths.

Dong-ho’s job in the mortuary is to catalog the dead: “You made a note in your ledger of gender, approximate age, what clothes they were wearing and what brand of shoes, and assigned each corpse a number.” He also lights candles. Jin-su, his de facto supervisor, has somehow found him “five boxes of fifty candles each” in the hopes that they will alleviate the stench of the bodies. Dong-ho knows that the candles do nothing for the smell, but he keeps them lit and continues to place them in the empty bottles that serve as candlesticks. The act seems to fulfill a memorial purpose for him, a form of faithful attendance that can only be observed by the living. Like the votive candles lit in the Catholic Church to symbolize prayers offered for another person—living or dead—these candles suggest both yearning and solidarity. As Dong-ho is replacing a candle stub, he stares at the body in front of him. “Suddenly it occurs to you to wonder,” he says, “when the body dies, what happens to the soul? How long does it linger by the side of its former home?”

At the gymnasium where volunteers have laid out corpses for identification, Dong-ho hears a protest speech through the loudspeaker: “The souls of the departed are watching us. Their eyes are wide open.” Dong-ho, who, we later learn, was killed in the uprising, wonders how this can be. In contrast to the slaughtered teens whose bodies he watches over at the gym, he recalls his grandmother’s death from pneumonia as “every bit as quiet and understated as she herself had been.” As she expired, “something seemed to flutter up from her face, like a bird escaping from her shuttered eyes above the oxygen mask. You stood there gaping at her wrinkled face, suddenly that of a corpse, and wondered where that fluttering, winged thing had disappeared to.” In Han’s world, the soul flies, soars, flutters, and floats. It has the kind of motion that a human does not.

Han is interested in the mechanics of a soul’s separation from its host body. The second chapter of Human Acts, “The Boy’s Friend, 1980,” returns to the Gwangju Uprising from the point of view of the just-murdered Jeong-dae. His soul hasn’t yet ascended; when another corpse’s hair touches his face, he says, “I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.” Jeong-dae resists leaving his body, knowing that he will lose his human faculties when he does:

I hovered around my cheeks, the nape of my neck, clinging to these contours so as not to be parted from my body…. My body seemed to slide beneath my wavering grasp, as though trying to shuck me off, but I clung on with a strength born of desperation.

While still in his body, he encounters other souls. One touches him, a “breath-soft slip of incorporeal something, that faceless shadow, lacking even language.” Jeong-dae is flustered, because he doesn’t know “how to communicate with it. No one had ever taught me how to address a person’s soul.” But “still we sensed, as a physical force, our existence in the mind of the other.” If Dong-ho’s souls are like birds, Jeong-dae’s are like shadows.

When the soldiers set fire to all the corpses, Jeong-dae’s soul realizes that “what had been binding us to this place was none other than that flesh, that hair, those muscles, those organs.” Freed from the rotting body, he passes “up into the air as though exhaled in a single breath.” The release is not gratifying. Jeong-dae wants to find his sister’s soul but knows that such a reunion might be disappointing, because in Han’s world souls are disturbed, powerless to effect change, and left to wander with their questions and their partial knowledge. They are without the comfort of language or community; they have no consolation; they exist among us without rest.

Such meditations on the undying soul occur in Human Acts alongside stark assessments of how trauma affects the body. In the decade after Jin-su and another unnamed leader of the student uprising are released from prison, they struggle with the memory of the torture they suffered. “The interrogation room of that summer was knitted into our muscle memory, lodged inside our bodies,” Jin-su’s cellmate reflects. Another prisoner describes the image of a corpse “etched into the insides of my eyelids…. Where I’ll never be able to scrape it off.”

These survivors have nightmares and insomnia and numb themselves with painkillers and alcohol. Eun-sook spends seven days attempting to forget the seven slaps she receives from a government censor. The unnamed prisoner, who suffered much worse, attests that “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.” Jin-su, who still dreams of Dong-ho and the other boys who were slaughtered, commits suicide.

Han’s depictions of the afterlife in Human Acts reflect the combination of cultural, religious, and philosophical influences—shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, secular humanism, and Christianity—that informs the modern Korean consciousness, but they don’t quite correspond to any one of them. Some of her characters go to church, some honor Buddha’s birthday, and others observe jesa, the Korean ceremony for paying homage to the dead. Han’s view of the afterlife involves a soul—which Christians believe in and Buddhists do not—but lacks a Judeo-Christian or Muslim form of heaven and hell.

Sangil YiMangwol-dong cemetery, Gwangju, South Korea, 1991; photograph by Sangil Yi from his ‘Mangwol-dong’ series. It appears in Suejin Shin’s book Contemporary Korean Photography, published recently by Hatje Cantz.

Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, Christianity has had a strong impact on the political history of the Korean peninsula. Christian clergy were at the forefront of resistance against the Japanese colonial government, and famous patriots and martyrs, including Gil Seon-ju (1869–1935) and Yu Gwan-sun (1902–1920), were deeply influenced by Christian ideals. It’s worth noting that Lim Seon-ju, the female factory worker in Human Acts, shares a name with Gil Seon-ju, often called the father of Korean Christianity and a leader of resistance against Japanese colonialism. Christians have also been involved in the democracy movement throughout the history of South Korea. For many decades, Catholic priests gave sanctuary to demonstrating students and negotiated on behalf of unjustly imprisoned dissidents. Kim Dae-jung, a central figure in the democracy movement and the only Korean to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a devout Catholic.

Christians appear throughout Human Acts—a man carrying a Bible to church on a Sunday morning is murdered, church ladies hand out food to protesters, churches protect union organizers, factory girls attend services, and a heroic union leader finds courage in her Christian faith. But when Seon-ju, who had once volunteered in the Provincial Office and gym with Dong-ho, appears twenty-two years after the Gwangju Uprising in the chapter called “The Factory Girl, 2002,” she rejects Christianity explicitly:

I could never believe in the existence of a being who watches over us with consummate love.

I couldn’t even make it through the Lord’s Prayer without the words drying up in my throat.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I forgive no one, and no one forgives me.

Seon-ju, who was caught protesting armed with a megaphone and a gun, has survived torture and imprisonment and spent decades on the run from the police. She leads a solitary life and struggles quietly, doing work for which she cares little. The sort of faith that motivated Gil, her namesake, has no comfort for her. Not all dissidents are motivated by such beliefs, Han might be implying; whether they embrace religion or repudiate it, they have to come to terms with what they have done, what has been done to them, and how they will survive.

Christianity continues to spread in South Korea today and has become an important part of the country’s political and social fabric. But the responses to this Western religion have varied, as Han shows. She is neither dogmatic about nor dismissive of metaphysical struggles like Seon-ju’s. Nor does she ignore the indigenous beliefs and practices that continue to have a place in Korean culture. In Korean shamanism, the soul of the dead possesses the body of a mudang, an intercessor, which allows it to communicate with the living. Han never explicitly mentions shamanism, but it seems to inform her method, in Human Acts, of giving expression to those who have been killed.

Han is similarly subtle when she addresses Korea’s ancient, unjust caste system. Dong-ho’s parents run a “leather shop in Daein Market,” and his father’s back was injured from “carrying a heavy box of hides.” A Korean reader will likely recognize this as a reference to caste. Dating back to the twelfth century, those who worked as executioners, dog catchers, butchers, and leather workers were baekjeong, Korea’s “untouchable” outcasts. Touching the dead, which is seen as ritually unclean, remains taboo in many cultures, and although the caste system has not existed in South Korea for many generations, in Human Acts the profession of Dong-ho’s parents and his own work in the makeshift morgue draw attention to the persistence of social discrimination. The people of Gwangju were economically and politically disadvantaged under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, because these two leaders favored the Gyeongsang province in the southeast. By invoking the caste system, Han is emphasizing the inequity of being singled out for punishment and subjugation strictly on the basis of belonging to a disfavored tribe.

Human Acts is an easy book to admire but not an easy one to read. Han deals directly with the terrible pain that Koreans have inflicted upon one another. Her descriptions of the effects of torture and brutality on the bodies of dissidents are disturbingly graphic: ants nibble at genitals; intestines burst under boots; blood leaks from corpses in a “viscous treacle ooze”; there is always an inescapable odor of decay.

A different sort of desolation comes to those who survive. In the novel’s last chapter, Han gives voice to Dong-ho’s mother, who has been forever altered by the loss of her son three decades earlier. She thinks of him constantly and keeps him alive in her mind by remembering him. Living without him is nothing short of ultimate despair: “I’m the one who’s being left behind, alone in this hell.”

I cannot name another work of recent literature in which the loss of a child is so poignantly rendered, with such economy and elegance. In the last pages of the chapter, Dong-ho’s mother addresses him directly:

I don’t have a map for whatever world lies beyond death. I don’t know whether there, too, there are meetings and partings, whether we still have faces and voices, hearts with the capacity for joy as well as sorrow. How could I tell whether your father’s loosening grip on life was something to pity, or to envy?

Han was clearly haunted by Dong-ho’s murder and by the deaths of all those who perished in May 1980. In the epilogue to Human Acts she explains that, in researching the book, she traveled to Gwangju to learn more about Dong-ho. She visited the former site of his house—her old house—met his brother, went to his middle school, and brought three candles to his grave. When she lit them, she writes, “I didn’t pray. I didn’t close my eyes, or observe a minute’s silence.” Instead, she knelt over Dong-ho’s grave and watched the candles burn. Her account ends on the same image she gave Dong-ho to imagine the soul when it escapes: “I stared, mute, at that flame’s wavering outline, fluttering like a bird’s translucent wing.”