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A Struggle, but well worth the read...about man's inhumanity to man.

Human Acts - Han Kang

Human Acts, by Han Kang The translator introduces the book by explaining the past history of South Korea that led to the Gwangju Uprising, on May 18th, 1980, in order to orient the reader to the novel, but nothing will prepare the reader for the documentation of the violence that follows page after page as the characters relate their memories of those events, interspersed over almost three and a half decades, from 1980 to 2013. When the book ends, the writer explains her motivation and her procedures in preparation of writing the book. The book begins in 1980, with turmoil in South Korea. A coup had overthrown the head of the government for the past 19 years, Park Chung-hee. Fearing a loss of control, he had attempted to rescind the old constitution and institute a new one. That effort was resented and was foiled with his assassination. Into that void stepped his protégé, Chun Doo-hwan. He began to initiate martial law under false pretenses, and the people rebelled. They did not want another dictator. They rose up, and that is the subject of this book. The Gwangju Uprising was brutally beaten back by an army that indiscriminately murdered and tortured innocent, unarmed victims of their onslaught. They showed little regard for human life; their strength and power outmatched that of the unhappy civilians and students. Brutally attacked, the bodies piled up, awaiting identification and burial. There were many young students among the dead, injured and captured. Male and female captives were tortured. The cold-blooded death and destruction was massive. The number of dead and wounded numbered in the hundreds. This book is told in several installments, each one feeling like a separate story about incidents that occurred from the time of the uprising which continued in memory over decades, as South Korea became more and more democratic. Their democracy rose up from the death and destruction. Those that experienced the traumatic days of the uprising and witnessed the death and torture that followed, were tortured, as well, by their own nightmares for decades. When the novel begins, fifteen year old Dong-Ho and is friend Jeong-Dae, are watching the protesters gather in opposition to the new government. When the military opens fire, Jeong-Dae is hit by a bullet. Dong-Ho witnessed the death of his friend, but was unable to move, even to try and help him. Those that tried to help the injured and the dying were cold-bloodedly gunned down as well. Afterwards, when Dong-Ho could move freely, his conscience propelled him to search for his friend’s body. He volunteered to tend the bodies waiting to be identified, hoping to discover the body of Jeong-Dae and also to locate his sister, Jeong-Mi. Both of them lived with Dong-Ho and his family. Now both were missing. Dong-Ho refused to return home until he located his friend’s body. This short opening segment described the moment the bullet entered and exited Jeong-Dae’s body. It related the horrific treatment of the mortally wounded as their numbers mounted. It also related the experience from Jeong-Dae’s point of view, and the description is often mystical as he explains what has experienced is experiencing and expects to experience with the passage of time. He feels that his sister is also deceased and becomes aware of the moment of Dong-Ho’s death, as well. The graphic portrayal of the attack against the unarmed civilians, which was both brutal and sadistic, will be difficult to read all at once. In the aftermath, learning about the treatment of the captives may be even harder to deal with at once. I needed frequent respite from the horror of it. The viciousness of the heartless soldiers was simply devastating, during and after the uprising. The people simply never expected such evil behavior would be directed toward an unarmed, innocent population, only looking to peacefully voice their objections to the government’s new policies. Each successive segment takes the reader to a different time, going forward, until the present day, with a different character highlighting the experiences each suffered and/or witnessed. The scars of that time were indelible on each of their memories as the years passed, and their dreams at night were haunted by nightmares, even decades later. Their lives were unalterably changed by the horrific treatment they received, ordered and meted out without compassion by the authorities in charge at that time. Human rights did not exist, human dignity was absent. Speech was silenced. Still, the revolt led to the style of democracy they enjoy today. The book is about an event I knew nothing about. It is brief and well worth the read on many levels. The style is unusual and the information is vast.