Han Kang's fairly heavy 'Human Acts' (2016) is set in Gwangju, 160 miles out of Seoul, based on the actual Gwangju Uprising from 18 to 27 May 1980, in a nation-wide unrest after the assassination of an authoritarian President. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)
It was a messy South Korea in 1980s. So it was painful for some when that authoritarian President's daughter became the 11th President of South Korea in 2013, but has since been impeached, removed from office and indicted on corruption and bribery charges. Translated by Deborah Smith who also worked on the author's 'The Vegetarian' (published in 2007 and translated to English in 2015), this story feels like it has to be written—it would be a way to express what the author have seen and heard then as a nine-year-old child when she lived in Gwangju.
In the province of South Jeolla, Gwangju was a restless city with the pro-democracy citizens arming themselves against the military supported by a dictator-general Chun Doo-hwan. For five days in the month of May 1980, Gwangju governed itself, till the civilian militia's last stand against the army. There're a few central characters in the book, and each chapter is written from their perspectives. We begin with 15-year-old protagonist Dong-ho who is looking for the corpse of his best friend Jeong-dae, and volunteers at the local gymnasium where corpses are stored. His job is to number and catalogue the corpses for identification purposes. Then there're the people he work with who aren't that much older than him- the women Eun-sook and Seon-ju, and an older professor Jin-Su. The story moves on to tell us about their lives and how everything culminated in that stand-off at the Provincial Office when the army came in to re-take the city, and how some died, and others taken prisoners to be tortured for whatever information the military wanted.
I don't know Korean, neither do I watch any of their horrendously sappy dramas nor am I hot about kimchi, gochujang, ginseng chicken soup or fried chicken, so I wouldn't be any wiser as to how much is lost in translation. In this translation, the language was smooth and the nuances came through. The author doesn't seem to shy away from the brutality of describing how the soldiers killed these protestors. The pain and themes of war, riots, ideological divide and civil strife are universal. I would not want that to happen in my country.
No sooner had we rolled out our banners than they were snatched away and the whole lot of us were hauled off to the police station. We were just sitting there in a daze until some young people were brought in; they'd formed their own association, of the wounded, and had been demonstrating at a different spot along the convoy's route. Their faces were sullen when they filed in, until they saw us there.
"Even the mothers are here, too?" one youth wailed, tears streaming down his face. "What crime have they committed?"
In that instant, everything inside my head got blanked out. It was blindingly white, as though the whole world had been painted white. I hitched up my torn skirt and clambered up onto the table.
My voice sounded so much smaller than usual. "That's right," I stammered, "what crime have I committed?"