Book: Human Acts
Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Published: January 17, 2016
Human Acts, Han Kang’s second novel translated into English (and 6th overall), is breathtakingly good. Its opening follows Dong-Ho from a close second-person perspective and slowly reveals to the reader that he is surrounded by the bodies of those who were killed in the brutal put-down of the Gwangju Uprising, a real demonstration in South Korea where paratroopers opened fire on protesters. Dong Ho is helping families find the bodies of their loved ones and helping the other volunteers dispose of the unclaimed. Kang writes that Dong-Ho is young enough that his “PE jacket is buttoned up to the top,” cleverly showing with that detail that he’s much too young to be helping families identify corpses. There are so many dead in the city that they cannot perform individual ceremonies for each of them.
Kang never returns to Dong-Ho, but what happens to him is the start of a brilliant thread that weaves multiple points of view together as the story shifts into following others who were unlucky enough to experience different edges of the same tragedy. Kang’s narrative handle on what actually happened to the bodies is minimal. In the same way that her Booker International Award winning novel The Vegetarian never goes into the perspective of the eponymous and pained main character, Human Acts never shows the reader the entire bloody disbursement of the protestors. It doesn’t need to do this when instead it can show us different people swept up in the tide of its violent aftermath. And as disturbing as it was to open the novel with Dong-Ho in the makeshift morgue, Kang ups the ante with each point of view, revolting the reader more and more with escalation after escalation of suffering.
While it’s not quite a novel-in-stories, Kang’s mastery of voice and characterization makes every chapter feel as though it could stand on its own as a short story in this world. Kang shifts the sections and the approach of each story to fit its teller. Depending on the character’s own personal view of the world, some sections are realistically detailed and full, while others slip into the eerie and lyrical supernatural. Human Acts, however, always remains gritty in its level of sometimes nauseating detail, whether it’s describing government censors destruction of manuscripts or jailers treatment of their prisoners.
Because the novel is based on actual events, Kang’s decision to never show the central event means there’s never an opportunity for the reader to revel in the violence. It’s powerful to read among the protests in the current American political climate. Human Acts offers a sobering look at what could happen to the individuals in attendance — with whom I have stood and will stand with again — under a more totalitarian government.
When it comes to reviewing a book this good, there’s not much more to say, other than go out and buy it. Kang has clearly worked hard at her craft for a very long-time, as has translator Deborah Smith, and it shows in every sentence. The book takes the ugliness of a tragedy and brings the reader to sit with it and to learn from it.