By Richard Bolisay
Basing on her two books recently translated into English, both of which are done with meticulous care by the British translator Deborah Smith, it is only natural to approach Han Kang’s writings with doubt. There is something about the way she strings words together that can be a bit unseemly at first, with metaphors that try too hard to add color and detail, but along the way the reader realizes the rewards of Han’s indirectness, her method of peeling.
Han’s Man Booker Prize–winning The Vegetarian has introduced her to a wider audience, a novel in three acts whose subject is as fascinating as its structure. It is a flawed work of strange beauty, one that is remarkable in how it refuses to be just about one thing — neither strictly about vegetarianism nor feminism, the whole managing to touch on core themes of humanity, suffering, and existence — and the changes in tone, point of view, and language can be disconcerting. She employs a similar technical device in Human Acts, published by Portobello Books in 2016, only this time it is more ambitious not only in terms of structure (with six points of view, not to mention a brilliant use of the second person) but also with the presentation of its subject: the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980.
The uprising happened at a time when local citizens protested and took up arms against the Chun Doo-hwan government. It lasted for 10 days, leaving more than 600 people dead, most of whom were killed in the most violent and horrendous ways thinkable. Han describes the violence with remarkable rawness and specificity, not the kind that would make the reader cringe in grisliness but in the heartbreak of seeing lives lost pointlessly, in the innocence taken away and the beautiful dreams shattered because of immense political greed and evil. Human Acts opens and ends with a teenage boy named Dong-ho, whose death becomes the story’s painful center, and whose soul lingers in the book’s narrative. Han effectively uses Dong-ho as an emotional device, but she never makes him a poster boy for anything. With utmost restraint and sensitivity, she manages to achieve through him an extrapolation of humanity that raises the most significant questions, even without the certainty of answers:
“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered — is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”
The other chapters provide an incisive, frightening look into the horror of the massacre: Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his brutal end and tries to figure out the reason for it, lingering as he sees dead bodies, including his own, get burned; an editor with a previous, first-hand encounter with aggression struggles against the claws of censorship; a man recalls the most gruesome moments of his time in prison, memories of his own torture and his cellmate’s, a university freshman whom he meets years later; a factory worker is forced to confront his painful past who, at present, still carries the trauma; Dong-ho’s mother copes with the loss that has changed her life entirely; and finally, the writer, Han, finds herself acquainted again with Gwangju, and through her own memories tries to seek answers but is only left with more questions.
Human Acts spans years and decades, with the effect of the massacre still felt even up to present-day Korea. But it isn’t so much about the passage of time but the atmosphere of forgetting, the way the violent massacre serves only as a reminder of cruelty but not of justice. With the rise of populism and systemic modes of government-sanctioned oppression across the world, this book is not only timely but also gravely significant, one that deserves to be read for its wisdom, for its levelheaded understanding of human purpose. There is so much suffering contained in it: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — but every word in it weighs true.
Human Acts is available at select Fully Booked branches and at Fully Booked Online.
Richard Bolisay is a writer, editor, and film critic based in Manila.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not expressly reflect the views of Fully Booked. That said, we love our authors anyway.]