May is an ominous month for students. In 1989, thousands of students spent the month marching and gathering in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, after the death of the liberal reformer Hu Yaobang.
The answer to their demands for democratic reform and more freedoms came on May 20, when martial law was declared in Beijing. Citizens joined the students’ protest; they gathered around the foam-and-papier-mâche statue of the Goddess of Democracy on May 29 and 30. In June, as everyone knows, their urgent pleas for democracy and freedoms were answered by gunfire. A tank pushed at the Goddess, and she was soon reduced to rubble.
The Tiananmen massacre is better known than the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea, where hundreds of students were killed in May 1980 for protesting the imposition of martial law. “That night, looking around at all those dead bodies crammed into the gym hall, you thought to yourself how like a convention it seemed, a mass rally of corpses who were all there by pre-arrangement…” thinks one of Han Kang’s characters in her third novel, Human Acts.
Ms Kang is an extraordinary writer; her voice in this novel and the previous two, The Vegetarian and Convalescence, is pitched at a haunting murmur that rises above more direct, politically strident novels. She lives and teaches in Seoul. Her family moved out of Gwangju “purely by chance” when she was 10, escaping the massacre. “That fact became a kind of survivor’s guilt, and troubled my family for a long time,” she told The White Review in an interview.
Each generation of students – anywhere in the world – finds their way to the writers who speak most truly for them. Ms Kang’s writing, subtle, steeped in violence but also in humanity, profoundly honest, is intensely universal, but she is also one of the few contemporary Asian writers whose work connects so directly with this generation of students, in India as much as anywhere else.
She writes of violence with the easy familiarity that is the hallmark of authors who have grown up in times of uneasiness, disruptions and censorship, and who have faced the duplicity and brutality of unjust regimes.
Her approach is the opposite of violence porn. Both Game of Thrones and Daesh, to compare completely different things, a TV show and a militant army, treat violence as a spectacle. They carefully choreograph acts of great inhumanity as performances intended to elicit either shock (but shock that reels the viewer in, wanting more) or fear (but fear that cannot look away in case the viewer is next).
In The Vegetarian and in Human Acts, Ms Kang does not write about violence as a subject as much as she bears witness. The Vegetarian features a woman about whom her husband says she is ordinary, nothing special, though he notes disapprovingly that for all her featurelessness, she prefers not to wear bras, saying that she dislikes feeling constricted.
One day, she decides that she will not eat, serve or keep meat in her house. This spirals into a frightening, guerilla war between her and her family. She takes a knife to her wrist when they try to make her eat meat, forcing it into her mouth, and the narrative circles back to a time when a dog was tortured by a family member. Ms Kang makes a basic truth elementally clear: violence is not even about the infliction of pain as much as it is about overriding the will and desires of another living being, about teaching them a lesson.
When a state commits violence, when a government persecutes the young and along with them, crushes the more vulnerable members of its society, when a nation meets student protests and hunger strikes with hectoring, accusations and force, it is laying bare its deepest terrors. What such a state finds most frightening is the idea that its citizens might prize free will more highly than the will of the regime; that they might enjoy and care for freedoms more than obedience.
Ms Kang offers a disconcerting and useful way to frame the aggressive demands for nationalism in a time of oppression:
“That afternoon there were several positive identifications, and there ended up being several different shrouding ceremonies going on at the same time, at various places along the corridor. The national anthem rang out like a circular refrain, one verse clashing with another against the constant background of weeping, and you listened with bated breath to the subtle dissonance this created. As though this, finally, might help you understand what the nation was.”
If Han Kang wrote only about cruelty and suffering, readers might respect her writings and her conscience, but her novels, in Deborah Smith’s intelligent translation, would not be as loved as they are by readers across the world. Her other great gift is to understand that, as she says, human beauty and human cruelty go hand in hand – in times of the worst crackdowns, there are still acts of kindness and caring, and these acts have as much weight and meaning as does the torture, the censorship, the imprisonments and the open killings.
Human Acts, for instance, begins with a 15-year-old searching for his friend among the bodies of the massacred, brought to the municipal gym. He finds horror, and mutilation, and the ineradicable smell of death. But he also joins Eun-Sook, a high school student in her final year, and Seon-ju, a machinist at a dressmaker, helping them to clean up and tally the corpses.
It is grim work, but as you spend more time with the dead, Han Kang lets you see the living souls behind them, the precious ordinariness of their lives before the massacre.
(Published in the Business Standard, May 6, 2016)