Like a bird escaping

Excerpt from Human Acts by Han Kang

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith.

‘Hasn’t enough blood been shed? How can all that blood be simply covered up? The souls of the departed are watching us. Their eyes are wide open.’

The voice of the man conducting the ceremony cracks at the end. The repetition of that word, ‘blood’, gives you a tightening feeling in your chest, so you open your mouth wide and suck in another deep breath.

A soul doesn’t have a body, so how can it be watching us?

You recall your maternal grandmother’s death last winter. What started out as a mild cold soon turned into pneumonia and she was admitted to hospital. She’d been there around a fortnight when you and your mother went to visit her, one Saturday afternoon when you were basking in the relief of having got through the end-of-term exams. But then, without warning, your grandmother’s condition deteriorated. Your mother contacted her brother and told him to come as quickly as possible, but he was still stuck in traffic when the old woman breathed her last.

Your childhood visits to her home inevitably included a quiet ‘follow me’ as the elderly woman, her back bent into the shape of the letter , led the way to the dark room that was used as a pantry. Then, you knew she would open the larder door and bring out the cakes that were stored there to use as ceremonial offerings on the anniversary of a relative’s death: pastries made from oil and honey, and block-shaped cakes of pounded glutinous rice. You would take an oil-and-honey pastry with a conspiratorial grin, and your grandmother would smile back at you, her eyes creasing into slits. Her death was every bit as quiet and understated as she herself had been. Something seemed to flutter up from her face, like a bird escaping from her shuttered eyes above the oxygen mask. You stood there gaping at her wrinkled face, suddenly that of a corpse, and wondered where that fluttering, winged thing had disappeared to.

What about those who are now in the gym hall — have their souls also escaped their bodies, flying away like birds? Where could they possibly be going? It surely wasn’t some alien place like heaven or hell, which you’d heard about the one time you ever went to Sunday school, when you and your friends were lured there by the prospect of chocolate Easter eggs. You’d never been convinced by the historical dramas on TV, where the spirits of the dead were supposed to be scary figures, dressed all in white and wandering around in an eerie fog, their dishevelled hair the sign of an unquiet rest.

You feel drops of rain pattering down on your head. As you look up, the raindrops splash against your cheeks and forehead. Seemingly in an instant, the individual drops meld and blur into thick streaks, pouring down with ferocious speed.

The man with the microphone shouts out, ‘Please sit own, all of you. The memorial service hasn’t finished yet. This rain is tears shed by the souls of the departed.’

The chilly rainwater, which has crept inside the collar of your uniform, soaks our vest as it trickles down your back. The tears of the souls are cold, all right. Goosebumps rise on your forearms, on your back, as you hurry to shelter under the eaves projecting over the main door. The trees in front of the Provincial Office are being lashed by the rain. Squatting down on the highest step, the one closest to the door, you think back to your biology lessons. Studying the respiration of plants during fifth period, when the sunlight was always on the wane, seems like something hat took place in another world, now. Trees, you were told, survive on a single breath per day. When the sun rises, they drink in a long, luxurious draught of its rays, and when it sets they exhale a great stream of carbon dioxide. Those trees over there, who hold those long breaths within themselves with such unwavering patience, are bending under the onslaught of the rain.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Human Acts – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma.

Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.

Copyright © 2014 by Han Kang.

Translated by: Deborah Smith

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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