Artizan  St.Reading group Discuss Han Kangs’ Human Acts

This time, Han Kang’s unremittingly grim re-imagining of the South Korean Gwangju uprising of


Who among us knew of the historical facts on which it was based? None, save Tim, vaguely. At the time Gwangju citizens took up arms (by robbing local armories and police stations) when local Chonnam University students – who were demonstrating against the Chun Doo-hwan government – were fired upon, killed, and beaten in an unprecedented attack by government troops. Up to 606 people may have died. The author was born in Gwangju and was nine years old at the time of the uprising.

Han impersonates various victims of the atrocity, dwelling on the details of torture, rape and killings. Janet hadn’t been able to read more than a few pages at a go. What was interesting was Han’s inventiveness in making each impersonation so subjective without, for the most part, using first person reportage. In fact, the book largely reads as an address by the author to the characters she has chosen.

How was it that we hadn’t been aware of such appalling events? Had they not been reported in the press? Not like this, they weren’t. Check the broadsheet Times archive and reflect that 1980 pre-dates by decades the kind of instant global information we are used to now.

Malcolm had felt uncomfortable reading the gradual release of horrific details as if it were a device of suspense. Maybe the question for him was whether this kind of exposé should be fiction at all. Compare it with Coetzee’s torture novel, Waiting for the barbarians. At least there the perpetrators are given a psychology. Han doesn’t do that. Tim pointed out that she did address this by giving the soldiers a motive of mercenary gain. It was a fiction intended for other South Koreans. That was the way to do it, according to Sara. Reach your audience. And go global. Who would have translated and published a documentary account? Fiction as historic polemic!

The same argument might prevail against Malcolm’s other concern, that the book did not treat at all of geo-politics, did not seek to see the cause of the massacre in the West sponsoring militaristic regimes. Instead of anything like that, Han has a Leitmotif of something she terms psychological autopsy, pinning each victim’s horror to a kind of generalised inhumanity.

Jenny had the book as intensely personal, restricting its remit so as to exclude context. That would fit. No point in attributing cause and effect except, as Janet and Tim and others averred, to the world-wide propensity for violence. Very convenient.

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