Book review: Human Acts by Han Kang

by Sam Finnemore / 29 April, 2017



Han Kang.

Booker winner on South Korea’s bloodstained history.

South Korean writer Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, released in English last year to wide acclaim, explored the psychic borderlands of body, mind and soul with the clarity of a near-nightmare. Han’s bewitching, unflinching focus on the physical was the key to that effect: a distinctive approach to the beauty and the awful vulnerability of human bodies, examined in the most personal and confronting way possible.

She reuses that approach to shocking effect in Human Acts. Where its Man Booker-winning predecessor built a frighteningly plausible fable around repression and resistance in a single life, Human Acts explores those same concerns within a specific moment in history – South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju uprising and its brutal suppression by government forces that left hundreds dead. The southern city of Gwangju is Han’s hometown, although she was living in Seoul at the time of the massacre.

The Vegetarian’s surreal views are replaced by concrete episodes of assault and torture. Han’s visions of death play off pity and horror in a way that hugely heightens both responses.

We’re compelled to look closely at a putrid form lying below a blanket in a college gym, and recognise what was once the face of a young woman. We’re reminded that a boy’s corpse abandoned in the woods was a person who tasted watermelon, dreamed of growing taller, felt cold water from a well bucket – all sensations recounted by his soul, lingering nearby. The physical form of death and the personhood of the dead are held in front of us at the same time.

Human Acts builds its story through layered accounts, rippling out in time from the events of 1980 towards the present of Han’s composition of the novel in 2013.

The voices of the living and the dead interlock, the past continually emerging as if rising through deep water. Love in all its forms mixes with the trauma and pools into deep wells of anger at the people responsible.

The faces of individual soldiers, officers and politicians are burnt into protagonists’ memories, and Han’s range of narrative perspectives includes an unsettling, sometimes accusatory, second-person: the “you” of Human Acts occasionally places the reader among the ranks of the dead, in the shoes of a doctoral student asking a torture victim to relive their experiences for the record, or as the unrecoverable pre-massacre self of a guilt-ridden survivor. It’s beautifully written, with an effective and sensitive translation by Deborah Smith (who also translated The Vegetarian).

The most memorable questions it raises are as much spiritual as political: what are the forces that bind personal identity to the human body? What happens when those bonds are broken by premeditated violent death, what’s left to be remembered – and what’s the cost of remembering, or of forgetting?

HUMAN ACTS, by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Allen & Unwin, $33)

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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