If you are the kind of reader who favors fiction that trails adjectives like “romp’’ or “boisterous,’’ keep your distance from Han Kang’s “Human Acts.’’ The world of this novel revolves around the South Korean government’s brutal suppression of a student uprising in the city of Gwangju in 1980. It is tempting to refer to this event as South Korea’s Kent State, but the sheer scale of the massacre and the repression that followed makes such a comparison odious.
Ghosts, both living and dead, inhabit this bleak, violent novel. In one of Kang’s signature moves, the souls of some of the massacred students look down at their bodies — repeatedly described as “lumps of meat” — and talk to their corporeal selves. Through their monologues we understand the shock and naiveté of these heroic but innocent young people.
And then there are the living dead, those who survived the soldiers’ bullets but cannot shake off the trauma and guilt they carry. Many of these characters also remain shackled to memories of the torture they have survived and the suicides of their comrades.
Kang mentions the student massacres only in passing in her previous novel, the melancholy Man Booker Prize-winning “The Vegetarian’’ about a woman who is refused control over everything in life except what she eats. But the atrocities of Gwangju are clearly ones that have haunted this writer for a long time.
Told from multiple points of view and spanning several decades — starting on the eve of the massacre in 1980 with the story of a middle-school boy named Dong Ho and ending with his mother’s monologue in 2010 — the novel returns over and over again to the young boy’s death and the number of people it touches. During a brief lull in the police action, Dong Ho stumbles into the provisional office, where high school students are guarding the corpses of those killed by the soldiers. He decides to stay along with several other students to protect the bodies and is shot when soldiers storm the building.
Along the way, we meet other characters — The Editor, The Prisoner, and The Factory Worker — some tortured by the state for trying to keep the historical record alive, some trying to escape the recollections of what they have witnessed, and all permanently scarred. Owing to Deborah Smith’s skillful and painstaking translation, each story is presented in an inventive way: Some passages are addressed to a “you,” who is never identified; present and past tenses merge into one another in other sections; there are fragments of songs and oral histories and the chapters where the souls talk have an aggrieved but hallucinatory aspect to them.
But where Kang excels is in her unflinching, unsentimental descriptions of death. I am hard pressed to think of another novel that deals so vividly and convincingly with the stages of physical decay. Kang’s prose does not make for easy reading, but there is something admirable about this clear-eyed rendering of the end of life.
Somehow, this portrayal only adds to the enormity of the crime committed by the dictator Chun Doo Hwan against his own people. One of the hallmarks of the Gwangju massacre is the disrespect shown to the corpses — bodies mutilated and piled onto each other in shallow, anonymous graves — in a culture that believes in honoring the souls of the departed.
The novel concludes with an epilogue titled, “The Writer, 2013.’’ We learn that Kang was 9 at the time of the Gwangju Uprising, and although her family had moved away from her hometown earlier that year, her father had taught a young middle-school boy who was one of the many killed. That story, which she had first overheard at that age, became the foundation for “Human Acts,’’ a novel whose title reminds us that genocide, the murder of innocents and torture — all the horrors that we like to pretend are aberrations — are very much part of human behavior.
The uprising is now the stuff of legend. Countless movies have been made about it. Some argue that in its terrible bloodshed lay the seeds of Korean democracy. The South Korea of today seems anxious to forget its history of military rule. But unlike many of her countrymen, Kang seems incapable — or perhaps, unwilling — to forget.
In an interview in May, Kang talked about how her work always returns to violence, from the killing of animals in “The Vegetarian’’ to the genocide of “Human Acts.’’ But she is also interested in “human dignity and strength.’’ Perhaps it’s because violence is so commonplace that the dignity and strength with which her characters face it feels downright miraculous.
By Han Kang
Hogarth, 218 pp., $22
Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels “The Space Between Us’’ and the recent, “The Story Hour.’’ She lives in Cleveland.