Arriving in Amsterdam recently after a couple of weeks of cycling away from all internet connection allowed for yet another moment of receiving in one shot all the misery that had been going on in the world while I was away from it, racial protests and shootings in America to name just one of those, and feeling a sadness that, due probably to the contrast of not having the constant misery-filled-outpoor the daily news provides for a while, feels like a discouragement. You wonder, what is the point? couldn’t I just go back to cycling unaware of all this?
Coupled with this return to the world I began reading “Human Acts” by Han Kang (after raiding (with the very stern promise of not buying anything) one of the many excellent English/American bookshops in Amsterdam, even open on Sunday, in which I ended up buying for books, I am a disgrace), because I wanted to read “The vegetarian” but I found her other novel first. This is a series of interconnected chapters about the people who lived and died during a student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980 which was violently repressed by the government Army, in a swarm of atrocities resulting in approximately 600 deaths. Han Kang gives a voice to the students, school boys, survivors, prisoners and also to the dead, creating a heart-shattering account on violence and repression, and what is left after. I had to stop, repeatedly, to do something else or talk to somebody, because the weight of this book is too heavy. But is it necessary, I didn’t even know the a city call Gwangju existed in South Korea, hadn’t heard of a democratic uprising. So many tragedies go unnoticed.
To add to the general grimness, I also went to the “World press exhibition” which is featured every year in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk. It is a selection of prize winning reporting photographies – not only political or societal niews but also in sport and nature (which are the ones you need to take a break from the rest of the exhibition), and documentaries about the passed year. Again, those are magnificent, incredibly expressive photographs, about the migrants crisis, about gang killings in South America, about rape in the US Army, and so many other tragedies you get out of the exhibition with an almost physical pain in the chest. And, as with Han Kang, as with every time art manages to punch awareness of misery into you, you want to say “no more”. But you can’t. And you shouldn’t.We talked about it with my mother after the exhibition, having both said “I need a tea or something” to be able to transit back into daily life: she sometimes says she cannot read any more books about the Nazi atrocities in the Second World War, can’t watch films that are too depressing. And I understand the feeling, I too sometimes wish I could cycle away in the countryside, unaware.
But I also feel a sense of shared responsibility, as a human, knowing I’m are part of the insanely privileged fraction in the history and present of Humanity that won’t have to endure such violence and pain, and knowing I can’t know how it is to live or die through this, that I least I take the small effort of acknowledging it, and letting it depressing me, even just for a few hours, and trying my hardest not to forget. I, as a human, should know not only because I absent-mindedly watch the news but almost viscerally, with the help of those striking pictures or beautifully terrifying words, what humans are capable of, and what humans must suffer. Even before trying to do something about it, which is also necessary when and if possible, that is the first and most basic step: not to assume you know any better or have understood, but to confront yourself with it.
So read Han Kang’s Human Acts, it is a masterpiece. Go and sea the World Press exhibitions (they are in a lot of cities)