It’s 1980, and a country has turned against its people. In Gwangju, South Korea, Dong-ho staffs the municipal gymnasium, tending to the bodies of the dead. “Apparently all the dead will be brought here from now on,” he is told. “They say there’s no room left in the morgues.” A brutal crackdown in response to a call for democracy, where hundreds (or thousands – a disputed figure in the history books) are massacred. Some of them, like Dong-ho, are children. Dong-ho is only fifteen, and he peers into the faces of the dead, desperately searching for his friend Jeong-dae.
‘Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? […] As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.’
What follows are vignettes from those who play a part in Dong-ho’s story, charting the reverberating effects of brutality as the decades wane on – from 1980 to the 2010s. It’s at times excruciating to read, but you also can’t look away. In a particularly difficult-to-read chapter, Jeong-dae is a corpse, rotting on a pile. If you’ve read Han Kang’s critically acclaimed (Booker International-winning) The Vegetarian, you’ll know she doesn’t shy away from gut-wrenching, visceral corporality.
‘When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it.’
But what awaits those imprisoned is almost a fate worse than death; they are met with incessant torture and near-starvation. It’s unthinkable: that this is not ancient history and that a military inflicted such violence against its own people. Later chapters chart the course of an editor grappling with censorship, a mother grieving the loss of her son – before a full circle to Han Kang’s first person narration, as she explains her personal connection to this horrifying piece of history.
It’s sparingly told, but brutally so. There is an understated lyricism in Han Kang’s prose – and Deborah Smith’s translation – where the effects of traumatic experiences linger on the body – and on the means we have to express our trauma.
‘Gasping for breath in these interstices, tiny islands among language charred out of existence.’
‘The interrogation room of that summer was knitted into our muscle memory, lodged inside our bodies.’
Han Kang is ingenious with perspective, slipping between first, second, and third person perspective. The second-person chapters lend a particularly galling sense of immediacy to the narrative. The devastation is unfurling in real time, and we are a very real part of it.
It feels important to read books like these, to remember the inhumanity we are capable of, but also the humanity. To know that these things happen, decade after decade, all over the world. There are three reasons to tell these stories, one of the characters tells us. ‘Testimony. Meaning. Memory.’
CW/TW for torture, sexual violence