Updated on February 25, 2017
Human Acts is Han Kang’s second novel to be translated into English, after The Vegetarian, which I read last year and really enjoyed but didn’t adore. I heard that Human Acts was darker and more disturbing, and it was, but for me it was also even more rewarding.
Human Acts is told almost like a series of short stories all focusing around one pivotal event in 1980s Gwangju, South Korea. A student uprising is being brutally beaten down by the military, and high-school student Dong-Ho has seen his younger friend shot and killed. The story reverberates out from this point, returning to Dong-Ho and that one fateful night again and again, through the eyes of many different characters, as the wide-reaching impact of this event ripples out through history. We see what happens to the victims, and we learn how the survivors cope (or don’t cope) years and decades later.
This is an absolutely masterful work – Kang’s unusual structure and compelling subject matter are captivating enough in themselves, but add to that her incredible turn of phrase and you have something truly special. I particularly loved her description of souls loosed from their bodies, in the section told from the point of view of someone who has been murdered and finds himself, unmoored from his body, encountering other freed souls:
“Sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass, only to wordlessly slide away, outdone by whatever barrier was there.”
There are scenes of terrible brutality in here – descriptions of torture and murder and decomposition – and throughout it all a deeply pervasive atmosphere of sadness and futility. The story is told through the victims’ eyes; we never see any of the soldiers’ or perpetrators’ perspectives. This has the dual impact of placing the victims’ stories front and centre (which really helps to humanise the atrocity), but also leaving everything unresolved. Why are the military reacting so harshly? How can they live with themselves? Can there ever be justice? We don’t know.
The central question of the novel seems to be: is humanity evil? The soldiers and the students stand on opposite sides of this debate: one group shoots indiscriminately and one group cannot shoot at all. As for the survivors, that night continues to affect them for the rest of their lives, and they seem unable to forget what they have seen, or to fully trust anyone ever again. The key message is that atrocities and their victims must be remembered, and this book therefore acts as a record of the Gwangju Uprising.
This is not an easy read. It is sad and often painful, but for this reason I found it more daring than The Vegetarian and therefore that much more rewarding. I am basically awed by Han Kang’s ability to marry characterisation to structure to subject matter to originality to style. Human Acts is a masterpiece.
“But I don’t have a map for whatever world lies beyond death. I don’t know whether there, too, there are meetings and partings, whether we still have faces, voices, hearts with the capacity for joy as well as sorrow.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy Human Acts here.