- onMarch 23, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byHan Kang
- Human Acts
Tr. Deborah Smith 2016
It wasn’t as though we didn’t know how overwhelmingly the army outnumbered us. But the strange thing was, it didn’t matter. Ever since the uprising began, I’d felt something coursing through me, as overwhelming as any army.
Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.
The day I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of my fellow civilians, staring down the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, the day the bodies of those first two slaughtered were placed in a handcart and pushed at the head of the column, I was startled to discover an absence inside myself: the absence of fear. I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean . . . the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, while the speaker in front of the Provincial Office was playing the national anthem, the soldiers opened fire. I’d been standing in the middle of the column of the demonstrators, but when the bullets came flying, I turned and ran. That sublime feeling that I’d been tapping into, that enormous heart I’d felt briefly a part of, was smashed to pieces, strewn over the ground as so much rubbish. And the gunfire wasn’t only in the square; snipers were also positioned on the roofs of the surrounding buildings. Beside me and in front of me people crumpled to the ground, but I kept on running. Only when I was sure I’d left the square far behind did I let myself stagger to a stop. I was so out of breath I genuinely thought my lungs would burst. My face a mask of sweat and tears, I sank to my knees on the steps leading up to a shop door. Its shutters were down. A small group had gathered in the street, and I heard them talking about raiding the police stations and reserves barracks to get guns. They were clearly made of much sterner stuff than I was. We’re sitting ducks like this. They’ll gun us down, the lot of us. Paratroopers even broke into the houses in my area. I was so scared I slept with a kitchen knife by my pillow. Shooting hundreds of rounds like that in broad daylight – I’m telling you, the world’s gone mad!
One of them jogged off to fetch his truck, and I stayed there slumped on the steps until he drove back. I thought about whether I really had it in me to carry a gun, to point it at a living person and pull the trigger.
It was already late at night by the time the truck I was riding in returned to the centre. We’d twice taken a wrong turn, and when we’d got to the barracks we’d found that the guns had already been looted, so it turned out to be a wasted trip. In the meantime, I had no way of knowing how many had fallen in the street fighting. All I remember is the entrance to the hospital the following morning, the seemingly never-ending line of people queuing up to give blood; the doctors and nurses striding through the blasted streets, white gowns bloodstained, hands gripping stretchers; the women who handed up stale rice balls, water and strawberries to the truck I was riding in; the strains of the national anthem, and ‘Arirang,’ which everyone was singing at the top of their voice. Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again. That was what captured me, what has stayed with me ever since. Have you even known it, professor – that terrifying intensity, that feeling as if you yourself have undergone some kind of alchemy, been purified, made wholly virtuous? The brilliance of that moment, the dazzling purity of conscience.
It’s possible that the kids who stayed behind at the Provincial Office that day experienced something similar. Perhaps they would have considered even death a fair exchange for that jewel of conscience. But no such certainty is possible now. Kids crouching beneath the windows, fumbling with their guns and complaining that they were hungry, asking if it was okay for them to quickly run back and fetch the sponge cake and Fanta they’d left in the conference room; what could they possibly have known about death that would have enabled them to make such a choice?
When the announcement came over the wireless that the army would reach the Provincial Office within the next ten minutes, Jin-su propped his gun against the wall, stood up and said, ‘It’s possible that we could hold out until the morning and run the risk of dying in the process, but that’s not an option for the youngsters here.’ For all the world as though he himself were a seasoned adult of thirty or forty, rather than a boy barely out of school. ‘We have no choice but to surrender. If death seems the only other outcome, put down your guns and surrender right away. Look for a way to live.’
I don’t want to talk about what happened next.
There is no one now who has the right to ask me to remember any more, and that includes you, professor.
No, none of us fired our guns.
None of us killed anybody.