By Han Kang
Published in Korean as “The Boy is Coming” 2014
Translated from the Korean and introduced by Deborah Smith
Published in English 2016
Read Nov 2017
The translator’s introduction provides useful and necessary background for the novel’s readers. Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea from his coup in 1961until his assassination in 1979. Although credited for enabling substantial progress in Koras industrialization, he became an authoritarian who instituted increasingly repressive measures and declared martial law when demonstrations in the southern regions were held. His successor, Chun Doo-hwan expanded martial law throughout the country. Student demonstrations in the southern city of Gwangju brought brutal retribution by the military and the violence committed in a particular raid on a small student militia is the focus of this novel.
This novel brings to us the outcomes of the violence committed by the military against the protesters through an interesting use of voices and perspective. Six chapters, each focused on an individual present at that particular raid, are told from a variety of first, second, and third person perspectives and are set in time periods from the May 15 1980, the day of the violent suppression, through 2010; some chapters involve flashbacks to tell us more about the specifics of that day. The seventh chapter is an epilogue that shows how a writer comes to learn about the event in 2013 and decides to tell the story of The Boy we meet in chapter 1.
The translator’s introduction also describes the care she took to support the author’s desire that “the translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalizing the sorrow and shame that her hometown was made to bear.” The results are stunning and unforgettable. In addition to two protesters killed during the raid, protesters that survive, and family members of those who didn’t are voices we hear in various chapters. We leave understanding even for those who survive, their lives are forever changed and their grief inescapable. The author effectively helps us understand that such can be the outcome of human acts.