Human Acts


human acts

The events at the centre of Han Kang’s latest novel Human Acts (translated once again by Deborah Smith)– the murder and torture of its citizens by a repressive regime – are so ubiquitous that the first question for a writer is how to make the reader see them as new and other, to provoke both reaction and reflection. That Han Kang’s talent lies precisely in making the world look different, or making us look differently at the world, is obvious from her first novel The Vegetarian, though here the task is somehow greater, more demanding. The events of 1980 in Gwangju are clearly an important, if obscured, part of Korean history, and well within living memory. From its title onwards, however, Human Acts more than meets that challenge.

In dealing with complex historical events, it may seem a mistake for the author to plunge us straight into the narrative, but Han is successful because she is primarily concerned with character, which she has the ability to create through voice within a page or two. (In fact, the events of 1980 will only be revealed in part, and in parts, because Han’s focus from the start is on the human element rather than historical documentation, which is not to say it isn’t a powerful testimony to the victims). The first voice we meet is second person, identifying us with Dong-ho, a high school student who came to look for the body of a friend, Jeong-dae, after the initial confrontation between protestors and soldiers, and has stayed “just lending a hand with a couple of things” where the corpses of are being kept. Also there are two young women, Eun-sook and Seon-ju: the victims of this massacre will be little more than children.

Jeong-dae narrates the second section, but his voice is that of the dead:

“The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.”

Though these narratives originate from 1980, our next chapter is dated 1985, indicating that we will move through time to the present with an epilogue, focusing on Han herself, set in 2013. These chapters will reveal more detail of what occurred in 1980, but also emphasise that Han is concerned as much with the after effects as with the events of those few days. In 1985 Eun-sook is an editor, and her chapter, as well as providing evidence of continued repression, asks whether anything can be the same again, both for the victims and for the country. We see this when, shortly after the uprising, she phones the Provincial Office complaints department:

“I’ve just seen water coming out of the fountain and I don’t think it should be allowed… What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal.”

The chapter itself tells of seven slaps that Eun-sook has suffered when being questioned about the whereabouts of the translator of a banned book, structured around “the process of forgetting the seven slaps.” Forgetting is something that Eun-sook has found difficult, despite her mother’s advice:

“Just forget about what happened, then you can go off to university like everyone else, earn a living, meet nice people…and live, just live.”

Instead Eun-sook feels:

“After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life becomes a funeral”

in the words of the poem which ends the chapter.

The non-fiction book which Eun-sook wishes to publish tackles issues at the heart of Han’s novel:

“Certain crowds do not blench at the prospect of looting, murder and rape, while on the other hand, others display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty achieving as individuals.”

The novel displays both the barbarism and cruelty of the soldiers and the self-sacrifice of the protestors. Which is human? “Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel?” we are asked at one point. Yet in the same chapter, in prison, undergoing regular torture, when two prisoners fight over the food they must share, another pushes between them: “D-don’t do that.” In acting this way they become less than human, exactly what their torturers want:

“We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.”

This contrasts later with labour activist Seong-hee’s favourite saying, “We are noble,” as we are repeatedly made to consider what it does, in fact, mean to be human.

Human Acts, if anything, is an even better novel than The Vegetarian, as Han turns her eye from the person to the people. It’s an astonishing high-wire performance between horror and hope, asking uncomfortable questions about who we really are, sure to become a classic of its kind.

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14 Responses to “Human Acts”

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Great to read your review Grant, I hadn’t read her earlier work, but was drawn to reading this after reading about the book discussion with the author at Foyles, the motivation of Han Kang to write this book, if she were to succeed, was something I wanted to explore. I’m not sure if we learn that, that’s her personal journey I guess, I suspect not, I think we come to understand some things, but others are beyond understanding and when our minds, our psyche is so scarred from certain horrific experiences, I don’t know if it possible to ever fully recover.

    This book and the way it was handled actually reminded me of reading Primo Levi. Han Kang didn’t experience these events first hand, but the way she immerses herself into them, it is as if she did.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant. Sounds very powerful and quite realistic about how humans will behave in certainl situations. I notice Claire’s and your mention of Primo Levi – the first one of his I read was “The Periodic Table” which is a remarkable book, although all of his work is worth reading.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    A very thoughtful review, Grant. It sounds as though this novel takes a very considered and nuanced approach to exploring the dark side of human nature.

    I’ve no doubt that this is a truly great book – your review and others I’ve read confirm this – and yet I find myself reluctant to read it. Oddly enough, I think I would be more willing to engage with it if it were a film. There is something very personal about reading a book (more so than viewing something on the screen, I think). I’m still trying to get my head around this, but it’s got something to do with the fact that the experience of reading prompts the reader to construct their own images of what is happening in the book. Somehow this feels more personal than watching someone else’s images on the screen – it’s as though the reader has some sense of ownership over these images as they have constructed them in their own mind. This can be a wonderful experience, but it can also feel somewhat intrusive…I think that’s why I feel reluctant to read this one.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s interesting, because I find myself more likely to react to film or theatre when it comes to that feeling of, ‘I’m not sure I want to experience this.’ I can remember feeling that way with The Hours where one of the characters leaves her young children with the intention of killing herself, and on another occasion with a play when I realised that a child was going to die in the story we were being told. This is not to say that I’m not affected by what I read but I think the privacy of reading makes it easier for me to bear, and it feels less exploitative.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        That is interesting. I guess in some ways it might be easier to control the reading experience, to take a break if things get too heavy. I still find the imagery more up-close-and-personal though. That play you were thinking of – was it Medea by any chance? I must admit to finding the recent NT Live screening very disturbing – an excellent production, but hard to shake.

      • 1streading Says:

        That’s true, but it was a monologue written by Simon Stephens called Sea Wall which starred Andrew Scott (before he became famous playing Moriarty). I actually felt like shouting out, ‘Don’t kill the girl!’ Still feel quite angry at the writer!

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting. Han Kang seems very much a writer of the moment; one to watch. Still not sure if I’ll read it though, so far something isn’t quite grabbing me with her work and I can’t honestly say what.

    • 1streading Says:

      I wonder what it is? Still, no point in reading something you don’t feel is for you. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve come across a widely praised author that I just didn’t feel any motivation to read.

  5. The White Book | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kang’s The White Book is very different to her two previous novels, The Vegetarian and Human Acts. It is, as she has said herself, “difficult to classify, a kind of essay cum prose poem.” […]

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