By Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith
Han Kang’s dark and chilling style (similar to The Vegetarian, totally different story) poignantly recreates the story surrounding the death of Dong-Ho, a middle school student caught up in the events of a student uprising.
The author narrows in on the gruesome details from the moment of bullet impacts the body to the corpse’s rotting conditions in the aftermath. The descriptions are somehow both appalling, and sentimental, and drags the reader down to the level of the person witnessing the events. This allows us to embody the post-traumatic state-of-being for some of the characters. What’s truly admirable is Kang’s ability to tie these horrid details into the bigger picture.
The afflicted human leftovers of an unfathomable crime emerge from their own sides of the story to tell about the untimely death of a young student in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. This book is equally poetic, tragic, and historical. It opens the reader to a very microcosmic view of a grander story (the democratic movement itself). Over 600 people -mostly students and workers- were killed in this historical massacre, and the wounds are not yet healed.
Let’s tie this in to current day events. The uprising took place during the transition of power following the assassination of repressive dictator president Park Chung-Hee. Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye came into leadership several years later, but was impeached in late 2016 and imprisoned for abuses of powers in 2017.
I had the interesting experience of coming across a conservative, pro-Park demonstration in Seoul. It was mostly older, pro-Trump Koreans brandishing American and Korean flags. (I should note that most young Koreans do not sympathize with this point of view). It seems that this pocket of conservative older folks view the presidency of the first Park as a “greater good” inroad to prosperity and Korea’s rise as an economic powerhouse. I can’t say I agree with that on the whole, but I’m hugely skeptical of any political sympathy to Donald Trump. The Candlelight Struggle, a name given to the anti-Park protests throughout 2016-2017 led to the ousting of Park for varying scandal and corruption. Park Geun-hye was sentenced to prison in April 2018.
I have a few other posts that relate to the socialist/capitalist dichotomy of feeling that persists in Korea today, as observed in touristic spots around the country:
- Songwol-Dong Fairy Tale Village
- Paju Book City