Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

After my two-books-old-history with Han Kang, if there is anything that I have come to know, it is to expect the unexpected from her even for ordinary plots. No one else can create a novel filled with raw emotions of violence and lust focused around a woman’s mundane decision to give up meat (The Vegetarian). But what if the theme is not ordinary? Centered on the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea, Human Acts is not for the faint hearted. This emotionally charged, bone chilling account of the uprising will draw you in completely and keep you flipping the pages.

Split into seven vignettes, all of them interconnected by the presence of 15 year old Dong-ho, the novel shows the cruelties of the government and the soldiers in suppressing an uprising and its ever-reaching effect on the survivors. Different themes are explored in each of the seven accounts, yet all are equally morbid and fill the readers with despair. The first account by Dong-ho is narrated amongst putrefying bodies waiting to be identified by relations for a proper burial. The entire account reeks of guilt which Dong-ho feels in abandoning his friend, Jeong-dae, during a violent protest. Soon, we hear Jeong-dae’s narrative as a soul trying to escape from his rotting body stuck underneath a pile of corpses in a mass grave. The rest of the accounts spanning over 33 years portray the influence of the violent acts throughout the lives of the survivors. The narratives range from an editor struggling under censorship when trying to publish a relevant play, a jailed protester remembering the dehumanising acts of starvation and torture intended to take out any sense of humanity to make them feel like a piece of meat, a woman who has forcefully repressed her brutal sexual torture which has left her averse to intimacy and the mother of Dong-ho lamenting the loss of her son and struggling to come to terms with that. The final narrative is the writer’s personal experience of the uprising. The 9 year old author, whose family had recently relocated to Seoul from Gwangju at the time of the uprising, is traumatised after she accidentally sees a brutalised image of a female victim. Her distant connections with Dong-ho’s family in Gwangju is also revealed.

The novel is translated from Korean by Deborah Smith and she gives us perspective about the setting of the book in the introduction. Her difficulty in translating the book while providing justice to the sensitive content is also touched upon. Her efforts in translating are really commendable and she has tried to retain the continuity even in chapters where there is an abrupt switching between the past and present. The language is emotional and fearless and does not shy away from detailing traumatising experiences. The book also establishes various strong rooted relationships between the victims and we feel their personal loss deep within us. Dong-ho’s mother, waiting for her son to arrive home, instead claiming his body and burying him with her hands will melt any stone cold heart. Dong-ho’s brother’s self-consolation that his brother was lucky to be shot dead and not tortured resonates within you. The performance of the play where the characters enact the censored scenes without speech was beautifully conceived by the author. This is a magnificent elegy to all the individuals who were not even given the dignity of a proper burial.

This book speaks for all the voiceless and powerless victims of the uprising. Han Kang unflinchingly portrays the brutality experienced by the people under a dictatorial rule. She also raises questions of humanity and alienation throughout the book. The ruthless behaviour of the soldiers to the victims, the barbaric acts of a government even ready to exterminate an entire town – all these take away our faith in humanity thereby making us even question its existence.

“What had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no, even demanded such displays of brutality.”

Perhaps not to throw the readers into an abyss of gloom, the author also lists out acts of courage by soldiers who went out of their way to protect the citizens. Also highlighted is the fact that the armed college students who guarded Gwangju on the night of the military takeover refused to fire their weapons at the soldiers as their innocence left them paralyzed when it came to depriving someone of their life.

Similar to The Vegetarian, where Yeong-hye feels alien to her body and longs to be a plant feeding on water and sunlight, Human Acts also explores alienation but in a more realistic perspective. The concept is touched upon when Jeong-hye’s soul separates from his putrid body and longs to move away. The victims of military torture also feels a lack of belonging to their old self. They feel disconnected to the world and cannot break free of the denigrating acts done on them. The torture was intended to make them feel completely worthless, even unable to claim their body as their own. These surviving prisoners are walking corpses in an unfamiliar body without a soul.

Overall, this is a book is a must read for all the people to understand the message it conveys. If some excerpts are too gruesome for you, you can skip them but please continue reading. The book might even give you nightmares, make you morbid and even stressed, yet all those efforts are worth to honour the young victims of the Gwangju uprising.

P.S : I was furnished with a copy of this book by Blogging for Books. This in no way has influenced my opinion.

4 thoughts on “Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

  1. This is sitting on my desk here at the library, waiting for me to check it out and take it home. I hope I can take it in my mental state right now! I don’t know. Oh well, if I have to turn it back in and try it again another time it’s not the end of the world. I am glad that I read The Vegetarian. And I’m glad this one is similarly slim!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually, I couldn’t complete The Vegetarian. It distressed me a lot towards Yeong-hye’s hospitalisation so I couldn’t continue.
      Hope you find the right time to read Human Acts (We all know there is no right time for this book :-))

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I’ve still not got around to reading The Vegetarian though it’s been sitting on my Kindle for a while – I’m kinda regretting not going for this one now instead. Must bump The Vegetarian up the to-read list!

    Liked by 1 person

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