In January 2009, several dozen protesters refused to evacuate a five-story building in Yongsan, a working-class neighborhood of central Seoul. They were longtime renters of small restaurants and variety stores who’d been ordered to shutter their businesses. Giant quasi-state developers, including Samsung, had bought out the entire neighborhood, slating it for redevelopment into office and apartment towers, with the city’s blessing. Landowners had been paid just a fraction of what their properties were worth, but the hundreds of tenants, even worse off, received ruinous token compensation. When their appeals to local authorities went ignored, they resorted to occupying the rooftop under a banner: Our Lives Are Here.
The corporations had little incentive to negotiate and, after some weeks, enlisted the state’s spectacular muscle. Riot police used water cannons to blast the encampment, while others, armed and helmeted, charged up the stairs. Commandos spilled from a shipping container lifted onto the roof by a crane. The protesters stayed in place, lobbing Molotov cocktails in a confrontation reminiscent of the pro-democracy protests of their youth. In footage of the siege, the building looks like a squat candle, its top ablaze, swirling with thick black smoke. Five civilians and one police officer were killed; dozens of activists were injured and several sentenced to long prison terms. One survivor later explained, “We climbed up to the roof to live.”
The saga was broadcast on national television, and among those watching was the avant-garde writer and professor Han Kang. Yongsan moved Han to begin working on a new novel about the Gwangju uprising (or massacre), a deadly crackdown on unionists and student activists that took place in May 1980. Han would later reflect on the Yongsan tragedy: “I remember being glued to the television, watching the tower burning in the middle of the night and surprising myself with the words that sprang from my mouth. But that’s Gwangju.”
Eight years after Yongsan, coinciding with the nation’s largest-ever protests and its second presidential impeachment, Han’s Gwangju novel, Human Acts, has arrived in English translation. Many readers in Britain and the United States are already familiar with 46-year-old Han, who, along with her London-based translator, Deborah Smith, won last year’s Man Booker International Award for The Vegetarian. The English publication of The Vegetarian, about a housewife’s dark awakening, felt like an event: Korean literature, notoriously difficult to translate, had finally taken on a new legibility in the West. It was received as a feminist allegory or a surrealist parable. Its weird, frugal prose (“no watery blood, no ripped intestines”) invited comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara and Kafka.
Like many Korean and Japanese novels, The Vegetarian was conceived as a short story, which became the middle chapter of the three that make up the book. It revolves around Yeong-hye, an ordinary middle-age homemaker who begins to have murderous dreams: “great blood-red gashes of meat…. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth.” These nightmares compel her to become a vegetarian, before she stops eating altogether—a symbolic rejection of the rules imposed by her marriage, gender, and class. In further rebellion against these constraints, she agrees to appear in a semipornographic art film and later, in a trancelike state, submits sexually to its auteur: her sister’s husband. By the novel’s end, Yeong-hye is confined to a psychiatric hospital, coughing up blood and visited only by the sister she betrayed, a woman who, “as a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop…had always done her best.”