by Han King
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1101906729
By Noah Sanders
Reading Han Kang’s book, Human Acts, would be a difficult task regardless of the current American political climate. Human Acts follows a cast of loosely connected characters as their lives ripple forward and backwards from the brutal 1980, 10-day suppression of student protestors by the South Korean government now referred to as the Gwangju Uprising. It pokes and prods at the vile actions of a government lorded over by a ruthless dictator, showing the short and long effects of tragedy—on the individual and the community, the past, the present, and the future. The title, Human Acts, certainly refers to the barbarous actions we are, in Kang’s purview, all capable of, but also of the humane deeds, small or large, that allow us to overcome.
In 1980, in city of Gwangju, students of Jeonnam University gathered to peacefully protest the political ascension of soon-to-be South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. Government troops, under Doo-hwan’s orders, entered Gwangju and shot, killed, and beat the gathered students. What followed was a ten-day battle in the streets of the city, ending ten days later with an estimated 606 civilians dead. This is not a beat-by-beat record of the event; instead Kang focuses on the death of a fervent middle-schooler, Dong-ho, and its effect on those who knew him, even briefly, over the course of the next four decades. In doing so, Kang allows the reader to understand the motivations behind the protests, and the revolt that followed, through the eyes of the individual, using Dong-Ho as an avatar to put us directly in the grit and grime of the conflict. And as devastating as Dong-Ho’s experience is—Kang has no issue using her vast writing skills to describe the gore of armed conflict—he’s just an entry point to a discussion of the larger grief that flowed outward from the event.
Each chapter is told through the viewpoint of a character somehow connected to Dong-Ho and the Gwangju Uprising: a censored editor in the mid-1980s; the trapped soul of Dong-Ho’s friend; an imprisoned protestor; even Han Kang herself. Though the opening chapter introduces Dong-Ho, and momentarily, each successive character, their individual chapters are presented chronologically, allowing Kang the opportunity to showcase the long reach of the Gwangju Uprising’s horrifying effects. The editor, Eun-Sook still lives on the precipice of her nightmares, reality just as dark; Dong-ho’s mother chases his specter through a crowded marketplace, still searching for his soul.
Human Acts is, primarily, about how a single tragic event creates a before and after, a memory of the “times that were” and everything else beyond that. For Kang’s characters, the Gwanju Uprising not only redefined their futures, but also recreated their pasts. As the characters move further and further away from the event—some finding healing in time, others not—the moments prior to the event take on greater meaning, an almost rosy-hued nostalgia that only adds to the characters’ ongoing misery. Eun-sook, the editor, sees a play so heavily censored that the characters remain silent, merely mouthing the words. “After you died I could not hold a funeral,” a character in the play says, “And so my life became a funeral.” The past creates the future, the future reshapes the past, and in the greying limbo between them both are where the characters of Human Acts live.
Kang, here translated by Deborah Smith, is a gifted writer (The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize in 2016) whose prose ably toes the line between lyrical poignancy and brutal realism. And though, again, this is not a non-fiction account of the Gwanju Uprising, researching it after reading the book made it clear that Kang had to sacrifice some delineation of the scope of the event to make room for her stellar dissection of the undulating waves of grief it caused. This bleeds over into the paper-thin representation of General Chun Doo-hwan’s forces, shadowy slivers of evil that butcher innocents at a whim. Yet, this isn’t the story of the Gwanju Uprising—the good, the bad, the deceased—it’s the story of how it affected those who survived it, of how it continues to affect South Korea.
And though reading Human Acts isn’t a pleasant Sunday drive, by any accounts, it is even more terrifying in the context of the current American political climate. We’ve faced “before” creating events in the near past—9/11, the Newtown Shootings, the Orlando Massacre, etc.—but in Kang’s world, the event isn’t an act of terrorism, it’s a decree sent down from the very, very top. Even if Kang’s book is centered on an event that took place almost 40 years ago, it feels like a warning, a harbinger even of a physical and emotional future, a universal grief felt from sea-to-shining-sea, suddenly, horrifyingly, possible.