Title: Human Acts
Author: Han Kang
Genre: Fiction, historical fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Bokkilden.
My rating: ★★★★★
Summary: In May 1980, a violent student uprising takes place in Gwangju, South Korea, and in the midst of it all, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed. The story of his murder, as well as the story of the uprising, is told through different viewpoints in a series of interconnected chapters. Through the voices of Dong-ho’s best friend, an editor facing censorship, a prisoner, a factory worker, and Dong-Ho’s own grieving mother, we learn about the reverberations of violence, the crushing reality of oppression, and the unrelenting hope that resides in humanity.
“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 this 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, damaged, slaughtered – is this the essential fate of human kind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”
– Human Acts, Han Kang
Some historical background information. In May 18 – 27, 1980, there was an uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea, triggered by President Chun Doo-Hwan’s military rule. A number of local university students demonstrating against the oppressive actions of the government were brutally suppressed by government troops. This enraged the citizens, who took up arms by raiding local police stations in order to protect their community, and the conflict escalated. By the time the government succeeded in crushing the rebellion, hundreds of people had been killed or wounded. The Gwangju Uprising had a profound impact on South Korean history and politics, and it inspired later movements that eventually brought democracy to South Korea after decades of dictatorships.
Kang’s “The Vegetarian” was one of my favorite reads last year and I have been eager ever since to check out more from this author. My expectations to this book were high and it’s almost an understatement to say that they were met. In my opinion “Human Acts” is on a whole different level than “The Vegetarian” – where the latter is surreal in its content, with soft and dream-like writing, “Human Acts” is straight-forward and grounded in the way it handles its subject. It describes events, characters, and situations in a way that is horrifyingly real and upsetting, and the end result is a book that is deeply emotional. Some parts of the narration also uses second person-PoV, which was surprising at first but in this case I think it makes everything so much more hard-hitting. The book simply grabs you from the start and forces you to look.
The book spans a broader time period from 1980 to 2013, and the perspective as well as the year changes with each chapter. The characters narrating are vastly different; the spirit of Dong-Ho’s best friend, people who were imprisoned and tortured for their political activities, and Dong-Ho’s grieving mother all have their stories to tell. What they have in common is the Gwangju Uprising. This way we learn not only about the atrocities that went down in May 1980, but also about the effects and reverberations of the rebellion. The horrifying descriptions of unidentified, mutilated bodies lined up in a gymnasium definitely makes an impression on you, and a mother dressing her own son for his funeral is absolutely devastating, but so is reading about the long-standing consequences, the trauma, that imprisonment and torture has on a human being. This is something they had no choice but to live with even years after their release. There is also an epilogue included, told from the perspective of the author herself, where she explains what made her write the book. She was only a little girl when this took place, and even though she was shielded it undoubtedly made an impression on her.
“Human Acts” is a relatively short book but it took me a bit longer than expected because I often had to put it down between chapters. The writing flows beautifully and the descriptions tend to be minimalistic, almost quiet, but I think this just altogether intensifies the effect. This is a book that is accessible in its writing but emotionally difficult to read. However, it gives you a good look into what it means to be human, of the cruelty in some people and the good in others, of the conflicting feelings about ones own nation, and of all the things that simply are impossible to suppress. It’s bleak but it’s also hopeful and I think it’s definitely worth the read. Highly recommended.