HUMAN ACTS by Han Kang
Hogarth Press, 2017
“Every time I recall the blood that flowed in the small hours of that night – literally flowed, gushing over the stairs in the pitch dark – it strikes me that those deaths did not belong solely to those who died. Rather, they were a substitute for the deaths of others. Many thousands of deaths, many thousands of hearts’ worth of blood.”
I am in awe of this book.
The Vegetarian, Kang’s first novel to be translated into English, was one of the best and most thought-provoking books I read last year. Among of the numerous themes explored in those pages, Kang fearlessly tackled the question of violence – whether it’s possible to live a life free of violence, or whether violence is an inherent part of the human experience.
In Human Acts, Kang takes this same theme and amplifies it, chronicling pages upon pages of brutality that resulted from the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. At the center of this novel, which operates almost as a series of vignettes told from the POV of different characters, is a young boy, Dong-ho, who dies in the massacre. Human Acts spans the next thirty years, following characters who had known Dong-ho, some personally, some peripherally. You don’t need to be an expert or even to know anything about Gwangju before starting this book – translator Deborah Smith gives a brief but succinct summary of the sociopolitical context surrounding the uprising in her Introduction (as well as a note on the difficulty in translating such an ambitious novel).
While I thought The Vegetarian was a very intense read, Human Acts was much more so, for me. Kang doesn’t sensationalize the events in these pages – the prose is succinct, sparing – and yet, this novel is anything but unfeeling. It’s understated, told without melodrama, but it’s all the more hard-hitting for that fact. Interestingly, the riots themselves aren’t the focus of this novel – it’s the quiet moments in between gunfire that Kang hones in on; the aftermath; the decay of rotting flesh of the bodies who have yet to be claimed. I felt a visceral ache while reading this book that I’ve only ever experienced with a few others in my life. After the chapter entitled “The Prisoner” I actually had to put the book down for a while – despite there being only 100 pages left, I wasn’t able to force myself to finish this in one sitting. This is a book that demands reflection.
Human Acts examines grief, guilt, brutality, injustice – all on a universal scale while still relating so inextricably to the events of Gwangju in 1980. It’s masterfully written and uncompromising, raw and harrowing and more thematically relevant than ever. It’s difficult to read at times due to the sensitive and graphic nature of the subject matter, but if you’re able to commit to it, it’s incredibly rewarding. Han Kang deftly explores the cruel side of humanity without burying the thread of hope that runs unbidden through this narrative. She’s created something that’s absolutely striking, both heartbreaking and beautiful.