The Gwangju Uprising was a popular revolt calling for the democratization of South Korea in 1980. Students who protested against the martial law government were imprisoned, tortured, raped, or executed by government troops which led to citizens taking up arms against them. The murder of fifteen-year-old Dong-Ho by soldiers is the event that loosely connects the individual stories in this book that take place during the uprising itself and then over the following 30 years.
This is a book that can make a reader lose faith in humanity because the atrocities that are committed indiscriminately against teenagers, women, innocent bystanders, and peaceful protesters in general are simply horrific, as are the punishments later inflicted on the armed people trying to stop the massacre. Such a senseless and excessive level of violence against the civilian population is unfathomable, and Han Kang manages to convey these inconceivable and terrifying events in a tangible manner by meticulously showing the despair, fear and pain experienced by the characters in the moment, as well as the traumata they suffered, and that affect them over decades. The survivors had their lives stolen from them the same as those who died, because these events condemned them to an isolated and incomplete life in which only those that suffered similarly can understand them. Relatives of the dead are unable to let go of their grief, and they, too, cannot make those that were not involved understand their plight.
The book overall is very hard to take because it is unflinchingly brutal, depressing, and devastating in describing the cruelty and oppression, and then the aftermath. In one chapter, a character explains a form of torture inflicted on prisoners that involves a pen, an act that is truly insidious, because not only are the pain and the wounds this inflicts absolutely appalling, but the victims are reminded of it every time they see a pen, which ensures that even many years after their release their experiences stay in the forefront of their minds. This is by far not the worst thing that happens in this book, but it is an example of the acts of extreme cruelty and maliciousness humans are capable of, and not only of thinking them up, but of putting them into practice and inflicting them on their fellow human beings. One of the character ruminates on this, and the pessimistic take on humankind is not easily dismissed in this situation:
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 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?
[…] I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race. And that includes you […] As it includes myself.
What it means to be human is in general the subject of the book, but what it thoroughly examines is the darkness that is woven into the very fabric of our being and into our history as a species, or, if you want to call it that, the inhumanity that is not so much the other side of the coin, but an intrinsic part of humanity. However, facing the darkness in order to overcome it is a human act, too, as is progress which often means that out of the bad something good can be created. In this case, the Gwangju Uprising had a significant impact on the country’s politics and paved the way for later movements that ultimately brought democracy to South Korea. It is, however, only a small comfort to keep this in mind while reading. Overall, it is an important story full of horrors, and one that should never be forgotten. It is told in devastatingly beautiful prose, which makes this a read that is as engaging as it is off-putting, just like humanity itself.
CBR12 Bingo: UnCannon