The Gwangju Uprising as Remembered by The Vegetarian Author Han Kang and Other Korean Novelists

By Charles Montgomery

Previously I discussed William Amos’ The Seed of Joy, which I described as a rare work of fiction on the Gwangju Uprising by a non-Korean author. For an event so critical to South Korea, the Gwangju Uprising has generated surprisingly little fiction in translation, but there are a handful of excellent books by Korean authors that deal with it. The first thing a reader will notice is that while Amos’ work focused on the actual nuts and bolts of the Uprising, the Korean works tend to focus on the aftermath of the events.

These Korean authors rarely focus on the government created in response to the Democratic Movement, nor the culpability of that government in the events of the Uprising. Along those lines, it is also interesting that little mention is ever made of the role, or lack thereof, of the United States in the Uprising, yet several studies indicate that the Gwangju Uprising was the beginning of a powerful switch in public sentiment against the United States, which many believed was either implicitly or complicity involved in the Uprising’s quashing.

Considering how critical the Gwangju Uprising was to South Korea’s Democracy Movement, the translations of these works have been rare. Comparisons are not exact, but think about how much French literature has been written about the barricades of Paris, or U.S. literature about student revolt in the 1960s and 70s. Why has Korean literature been so restrained? The literary critic Chʻoe Chŏng-un, using the kind of logic that his colleagues worldwide might use, posits, “the uprising was like fiction, with a clear beginning and end, teeming with unimaginable incidents. In other words, it would be difficult to write fiction on a bizarre story.” But this hardly seems sensible, as many equally bizarre historical stories have been written, and more obvious reasons exist.

The first apparent reason not much fiction was written about the Gwangju Uprising was purely political and practical: to write about the Uprising was to invite extremely uncomfortable government attention. From the time of the event until 1987, the Korean government zealously guarded the meaning of the Gwangju Uprising to the point of attempting to control the vocabulary used when discussing it. “Murder” by policemen was quickly morphed into a “riot” by citizens, according to Chʻoe, and when the Uprising was mentioned, it was portrayed as the result of “impure” elements in Korean society who were prone to “incite,” “riot,” form a “mob,” and tend toward “anarchy.”

In fact, the government even attempted to rename the Uprising and denature it to an “incident.” Simply put, writing about the Gwangju Uprising invited imprisonment, torture, and perhaps even death. In Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards, the author’s biography notes, “the society of the 1980s was a regulated one, where social criticism, not to mention that of Gwangju of May, was absolutely forbidden to be expressed.” Even after the dictatorship was scraped, it was often dangerous for writers to produce anything that could be seen as pro-North or anti-government. As we shall see, however, clever writers could sometimes skirt this prohibition.

More recently, there has been a changing of the guard in Korean society to a younger generation that simply cannot connect with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Korea exists in such a constant state of future shock that looking backwards seems quaint at best and unproductive at worst. Ch’oe Yun, who we shall shortly discuss, notes that “since the latter half of the 1980s, Korean society has changed. I admit that to some degree the actual events of the past have become an abstract concept in our history.”

Ch’oe adds that this is most likely a survival tactic for Koreans. “This does not mean that I simply want to criticize younger Korean readers for being oblivious to the past. I even wonder if it was forgetfulness of the extremity of the past events that actually helped Koreans to move without fear into the future and build their modern nation. Also, I can only speculate about whether being oblivious in this way was in itself a positive source of energy in a uniquely Korean way.” Not surprisingly, a majority of those who did write on the Gwangju Uprising were involved in it, were members of the Democracy Movement, were from Jeolla Province, or sometimes all three. Among this number are Hwang Sok-yong, Han Kang, and Lim Chulwoo.

One of the groundbreaking works on Gwangju, however, was written by a resident of Seoul. Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls is a multi-narrator examination of a teenage girl’s descent into and occupation of madness after witnessing, and perhaps being partially responsible for, her mother’s murder. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, her abuser, and a group of college students (friends of the girl’s brother) who are attempting to find her. The girl is utterly traumatized, prone to seizures, and follows her abuser around under the mistaken notion that he is her dead brother. All the characters are damaged. Even the abuser is afraid that “the girl would end up just like those coins, slipping through his fingers, trampled by countless feet, covered with earth, and forgotten for all time.” This idea of death and forgetfulness will be revisited in Human Acts by The Vegetarian author Han Kang.

Ch’oe’s girl is an obvious symbol of Gwangju, and her state a reflection of what Gwangju itself underwent after the Uprising was crushed. As Han does in Human Acts, Ch’oe contemplates the role of memory: the desire to both remember and forget. Ch’oe’s girl desperately tries to construct a “curtain” with which to hide herself from her past. Yet even as she does this, she remains conscious of the fact that memory is all that is needed to tear the curtain down, and even that defensive curtain is unreal. Memory is an obsession, curse, and perhaps a kind of gift. As is the case with characters in Human Acts, the girl communicates with the dead in order to keep memory alive, saying, “Don’t put your hand over your ears while I’m talking. If you do, I’ll turn to dust. Now that I think about it, I’ve died and come back to life again and again.”

Ch’oe’s multiple narrators parallel the often fractured language, imagery, and telling (particularly by the girl) of the story. The literary beauty of this work partly owes to the fact that, while it is clearly about the Gwangju Massacre, its non-specificity about where its own atrocity occurred allows any reader to imagine it as any massacre. This was likely also a politically astute strategy for Ch’oe at the time. “When dealing with a brutal and desperate reality, reality can actually become an anti-literary environment for the writing of reality,” he notes in an interview with Japan Focus. “This is because the momentary utility of literature is always situated in conflict with a more universalizing, literary sense of time which seeks to leap beyond the limited, representational time which literature possesses. I believe that it is from the dilemma of the two temporalities, the two objectives – the writing of reality and the creation of reality through writing – that in fact all genuine literature which writes reality has been born.” It is amazing to note that the stunning There a Petal Silently Falls was Ch’oe’s debut work. The book was also made into a Korean movie titled Petal, for those who prefer their literature in a visual form.

Han’s Human Acts begins with the completely average scene of a schoolboy worrying about the rain for the completely unusual reason that he is afraid that it will speed up the decay of some corpses he is attending. The bodies belong to the victims of the Gwangju massacre. The story quickly turns, as did that of There a Petal Silently Falls, to issues of death and remembrance. “There is no way back to the world before the torture,” one character notes. “No way back to the world before the massacre.” Han lived in Gwangju but moved to a suburb of Seoul at age nine, just before the Uprising. As a result, she is very interested in the idea of a “way back to the world” that has been left behind, an issue that she addresses directly in her final chapter.

Human Acts comes hot on the heels of the award winning The Vegetarian, and packs every bit as much punch as it’s predecessor. Originally titled The Boy Comes (소년이 온다), Human Acts is told in a collection of linked chapters, almost a yŏnjak sosŏl, meaning a “linked novel” or collection of separately published short stories. Only the first two chapters are set at the time of the Uprising — the former in the immediate aftermath told by the living, the latter narrated from the perspective of the dead soul of a young boy on a charnel heap. In chapter three, the book leaps forward to 1985 where it explores the ongoing governmental efforts to dominate the national discourse.

KB - Korean Writers on Gwangju 2

This control is, of course, exactly what forced authors of the time into indirectness or inspecificity when writing about the Uprising. Chapter Four flashes back to the torture visited upon survivors of the Uprising, managing to present it as horrible and quotidian at the same time. Chapter Six is the “traditional” end of the book with the mother of the dead boy giving a monologue to him on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Surprisingly, Han concludes the book in with a first-person memoir of the real story that underlies the book and her own experience coming to write it. This section gives a very real historical heft to the work, strange as it might seem to find in a novel.

Han’s writing is much more visceral than in many of the other books, as she presents a modern version of Coleridge’s nightmare life in death. “Just before you step outside, you turn and look back over your shoulder,” she writes. “There are no souls here. There are only silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink.” Han is unsparing, and while her virtuoso second chapter featuring the dead boy could have become ghoulish or camp, she carefully plays it straight. She frequently uses the kind of second-person narrative voice heard in Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom, but in this much more serious book, the effect is also much more serious, and the “you” seems to alternate between a standard second-person narrative and a direct appeal to the reader, forming part of the most comprehensive treatment of the Gwangju Uprising with its scenes from the actual massacre right up to the writing of the book.

Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards is nothing if not anguished. Lim was a student at the time of the Gwangju Uprising, attending Chonnam University, the original center of the demonstrations, and he lived through all the events of the Uprising. Not surprisingly, this informs much of his writing. The novella indirectly focuses on the massacre the national attempt to overcome it — or pretend it never happened. That indirection comes from Lim’s having written the story in the 1980s, that time at which publicly attacking the government, or even discussing dissent and oppression, was extremely risky.

Lim drops the reader directly into the life of an ex-cartoonist directly addressing a doctor. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the narrator has been dropped off at the hospital by detectives who have been torturing him, and that their return, though without a particular timetable, is likely inevitable. In flashbacks, the narrator reveals that he once led a quite ordinary life as a cartoonist, but fatefully drew a cartoon that aroused the attention of the authorities. While never revealed to the reader, it causes the cartoonist to be taken in for questioning, complete with a semi-concealed threat by the police that they remember” his uncle, clearly a political dissident who went into some kind of exile or died in hiding. This threat, and the recognition it brings to the narrator that he is powerless and entirely observable, opens the floodgates in his mind.

The narrator is then overtaken by hallucinations, all barely concealed flashbacks to the Gwangju massacre. Lim uses symbols brilliantly, including the two in the title and at least two more brilliant ones during the course of the story. The lack of control that the title symbols express in the book is almost palpable: breath is squeezed and political lines brutally delineated. Lim fleshes the story out with enough family and social background information to both expand on the history (at least one other character lives in the grasp of Gwangju massacre-induced mental illness), and he does a good job of counterposing these characters against the others, including the cartoonist’s pregnant wife, who are apparently willing to forget the past and simply try to live through the present.

With these three sets of characters — the banal day-to-day survivors, the threatening agents of repression, and those who cannot forget and therefore suffer — Lim builds a pressure cooker. As the hallucinations grow and tighten around the cartoonist, he begins to cartoon again, unofficially, and this leads him back out into the public eye and the novella to its “conclusion.” The book is well written and clear enough that specific knowledge of Korea is not necessary to enjoy it. The interrogation scenes have the scent of Kafka, and the descent of the narrator is reminiscent of familiar stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or George Orwell’s 1984, while also exposing a thick slice of Korea and its culture.

Lim has previously been translated in the three-novella collection Red Room, which takes its title from his contribution, and it, too, seems to make clear reference to the Gwangju Uprising and its results. Lim’s short story “The Red Room” features dual and dueling narrator-protagonists. The first is a mild-mannered everyman/salaryman O Ki-sop whose casual act of kindness many years before and slightly suspect family background combine to draw the attention of the Korean state security apparatus. The second is Detective Ch’oe Tal-shik, who can say, like Macbeth, “I am in blood, / Stepp’d so far, that should I wade no more, / returning were a tedious as go o’er.” The story tells of Ch’oe’s attempts to break O down.

Not only does “The Red Room” feature dual narrators, but Detective Ch’oe also has his own internal narrators that represent the voice of his traumas (one from his domestic life, the other from his distant past). This internal narration gives him a sometimes-problematic inner dialogue: he is a man of contradictions, perhaps more contradictions than one character can conveniently contain. It is not that it is unlikely that a man of high standing in his church could also be a torturer (cf. the Inquisition), rather that such a character should also have such clear inner awareness of the sources of his own trauma, be so able to connect those traumas to his existence in his daily life and aware of their outcomes, but then to draw no conclusions from them.

Despite this slightly puzzling aspect, the inner voice is terrifying, telling visceral tales of terror (the internal narration is italicized): “Look, Tal-Shik! He shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing at the bloody corpses. You have to see this. Those sons of bitches are Reds.” The Detective’s position is clear: he relentlessly relives his trauma, it cycles around in his head, and consequently he cannot relieve himself of it. Ch’oe’s internal retelling of his trauma is intense and relentless; he cannot make it cease and in fact draws a perverse kind of justification from it. O’s writing is clear and direct, as befits a tale this blunt. A clever reader will spot a graceful nod to George Orwell in its conclusion that mankind is haunted by fear itself.

In “The Red Room” there is no hope of escape from trauma: the cycle is burned in too deeply and recurs to frequently to break. At its conclusion, Detective Ch’oe enjoys/endures an epiphany of revenge featuring the disturbing and vivid sanguinary image: “A blood-colored sea filled the room … As I prayed, I felt with vivid clarity a sacred joy and benevolence envelop me with warmth, before beginning finally to fill the Red Room.” Even O Ki-sop, the mild everyman, becomes a vessel of hatred. As he finally wanders home in a daze, he accosts a stranger: “Something is rising inside me, something hot and burning. It’s spreading hot throughout me, building an enormous heat – It’s my rage.” So the trauma continues.

Finally, Hwang Sok-yong ‘s The Old Garden (2000) casts a bleak eye on the Gwangju Uprising’s aftermath. The two main characters are in the student movement, but the book spends almost no time on the movement itself. In a clever narrative trick, the bulk of movement descriptions are attained through political pamphlets distributed by one of the characters. When the activists meet at a new cemetery, they are unimpressed and discover that the city itself has altered beyond recognition.

In fact, the political shift of 1987 has paradoxically resulted in a city that no longer seems to care about the issues that drove the Gwangju Uprising, instead treating its history as a “tourist attraction.” Hwang builds a bridge between the disillusion following the eventual ephemeral “success” of democracy in Korea and the “Hell Joseon” that was to come in which social relations are defined purely by wealth, hypocrisy, and opportunism, and all the noble ideals of the Democratic Movement have been buried under an avalanche of consumerism. Hwang sees the Gwangju Uprising as a movement betrayed.

None of these works are particularly cheery, and most of them are downright gruesome. In addition, they are all well-served by a bit of understanding of their historical background, as the authors prior to Han and Hwang had to make an effort to veil the historical event about which they were writing. Still, for a reader interested in Korean modern history, and particularly its sometimes harsh struggles towards democracy, these books are key literary texts outlining the impact of struggle, death, and memory on the creation of the modern Korean state.

Related Korea Blog posts:

The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

Leave a Reply