It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.’

What an astonishing novel. From the same author who wrote The Vegetarian comes a terrifying  and true life tale set in South Korea during the 1980’s. Author Han Kang may have only been a child at the time, but her memories of President Chun Doo-hwan’s remorseless cruelty towards student and worker protesters inspired her to write this haunting and authentic novel. The Vegetarian may have grabbed the headlines when it won the Man Booker International award last year, but this is the Han Kang novel that deserves the world’s attention.

Reading this book was a truly chilling experience. The atmosphere and tension made it feel more like a dystopian thriller than a work of historical fiction. However, an introduction by translator Deborah Smith and a very personal epilogue by author Han Kang prevent this book from becoming a sensationalist account. Instead, there is a sombre mood and tone as thirty years of recent history is recounted through the eyes of six narrators.

Multiple narratives sometimes can be a bit hit and miss but Kang achieves the perfect storytelling balancing act here. Cleverly, a single thread links all aspects of the novel together. The story opens with schoolboy Dong-ho looking for his friend Jeong-dae. In chapter two, Jeong-dae then gives his version of the same events. A former friend of Dong-ho then comes to the fore as she recounts the immediate aftermath of the uprising five years later.

Tales of torture and continued repression emerge in the main meat of the novel. Here, the author gets inside the minds of a college student and a factory worker who lived through and just about survived the Korean government’s brutal crackdown. This makes for very tough reading when the reader considers that these accounts are based on real life experiences.

There were close to a hundred of us all told, wedged in so tight you could feel the knees of the guy behind you pressing into the small of your back. We sweated buckets; literally, it was like we’d been caught in a downpour. Our throats were screamingly dry, but we were only given water three times a day, with meals. I remember how savage, how animalistic that thirst was, how I would have jumped at the chance of literally anything to wet my lips, even a splash of urine would have done. And I remember the constant terror of thinking I might accidentally fall asleep. The terror of having a cigarette stubbed out on my eyelid, so vivid I could practically smell the singed flesh.

And the hunger, of course. How persistently it clung on, a translucent sucker attached to the nape of the neck. I remember those moments when hazy with exhaustion and hunger, it seemed as though that sucker was slowly feeding on my soul.’

The novel comes full circle with the perspectives of Dong-ho’s mother and the author herself. In this way, Han Kang ensures that the characters lives are very closely linked over the course of thirty years.

For me, the telling of this story is shared like the passing of a baton. Upon finishing this book, it is almost as if Han Kang has challenged us to carry her message further and become involved in the fight for human rights. History books around the world recall previous human rights violations with shame and the students and teachers often boldly claim that they will ensure these human acts will never happen again. However despite this shared bravado, these events have still happened and continue to happen. Han Kang has reached out to us by writing this novel, only time will tell how we chose to respond.

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered-is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?’

Would I recommend this book to a friend?

Yes. In a age where the internet and media companies spoon feed us the news that they want us to hear, stories like this need more publicity. Far too often the abuse of human rights is swept under the carpet and stories like these are forgotten. Reading this book, I found it incredible that South Korea went on the joint host the 2002 World Cup. South Korea is still feeling the aftereffects of these cruelties today and protests against the government continue.

Afterthoughts

  • I love the three English editions of this book. Not sure which one I would choose if I had to!