Books: Tale of Korean atrocity is an emotional triumph
Fiction: Human Acts, Han Kang, Portobello Books, pbk, 224 pages, €14.38
As Human Acts begins, a schoolboy is worried about oncoming rain. It seems like a mundane, universal concern. But we soon discover its troubling basis: there are so many corpses on the makeshift burial site he manages that the overspill has to go outdoors, where rain speeds up decay.
The novel, already a bestseller in Han Kang's native South Korea, describes the events of and life after the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. Mistreated by the dictatorship of the time, labourers protested and students rallied to their cause. In the city of Gwangju, soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, but were subsequently driven from the city. It was a few days before they returned, arresting or massacring the survivors.
The beginning focuses on Dong-ho, a 15-year-old who is searching for the body of his friend. In the "confusion of the moment" he ends up working with the civilian militia, looking after corpses stored at the city's municipal gym, there being "no room left in the morgue".
This "confusion" is an asset. And the narration begins in shock. Things noticed are either matter-of-fact putrid details or memories to which the mind wanders in order to escape. Dong-ho, while listening to the demonstrations outside, finds himself puzzling over old Chinese script lessons. The lack of context is disorienting - what's happening? How could this happen? - but also familiarising: this could happen to us.
The rest of the novel travels through 35 years of aftermath. A teenager who hid from the soldiers is, by 1985, an editor; she is violently interrogated about the whereabouts of a politically dissident translator. One of her clients, a theatre producer, has almost 90pc of his play censored, and so performs it in silence.
Years later, former prisoners recall their torture in thorough, olfactory detail for an academic. A mother remembers her long-dead teen son. In the present day, Kang herself reveals the heartbreaking reason why she chose to tell this story.
But the strangest, most touching part of this fascinating book centres on the progress of someone who is already dead. Dong-ho wonders early on if the soul stares into its body's own dead eyes: a question answered by the soul of his friend Jeong-dae, which is trapped above his corpse in a mass grave.
Despite death being a fact of every life, for a writer to imagine how this may feel has become stigmatised in realist fiction, associated instead with fantasy or the ghost story. For this reason, the soul sequence in Human Acts threatens to be problematic, but in fact becomes a technical and emotional triumph. Kang's other world is as solid as it gets. Jeong-dae experiences death as one still living might: painfully remembering the fact that he is not coming back. He longs for physicality, to feel a hot potato, "juggling it in [his] mouth".
Life becomes precious in a new sense. Jeong-dae sees a body fresh from hospital and envies its "tangible record of having been cared for, been valued". Later in the book, a living character feels "shame" when she eats, thinking of the dead "for whom the absence of life meant they would never be hungry again".
Many of the sections in the book are told in the second person, which works well in Deborah Smith's English rendering.
Eventually, we realise this is because it is relating a conversation of which we rarely hear both sides: the living talking to the dead, and the dead speaking back.