Han Kang follows up Man Booker prize winning The Vegetarian with a brutal look at the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980.
The novel, split into six core chapters, interweaves multiple characters, though our centre is Dong-ho, a young boy who is tragically murdered. Another chapter shows the viciousness of censorship in 1980’s South Korea and how a manuscript could easily beget physical assault, and the steps it takes to dissolve the memory of the assault.
This English translation is fantastically book-ended by Debora Smith and Han King herself. Smith gives background knowledge to a reader, like me, that was not aware that Human Acts was based on true events. It also contains a strikingly honest epilogue, where Kang writes herself into the novel, and lets us pry deeper into the world of Gwangju before and after the massacre, just like the novel itself. She reveals that at the time of the Uprising she was just nine years of age and had moved from the city not long beforehand. For her, what stands out in her memory is her family’s faces whilst talking about the event, “the struggle to get through the story while having to skirt around the most gruesome parts; the awkward, drawn-out silences.” It is years later that she discovered what her family was talking about that day, through a memorial album of photographs from foreign journalists, hidden away from her and her brothers prying eyes. Her first inquisition into the massacre felt much like my own. “Soundlessly, and without fuss,” she writes, “some tender thing inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.” Closing the novel, this is how I felt, knowing that I could never forget what I had read.
Chapter two deals less with the gory insight into the massacre, but instead “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” shows us a human soul. Put simply, we learn what comes after death. This is one of the most touching chapters of the book, with Kang asking us “How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies? Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?” Though we may never know, Kang describes this extraction of a soul from a body with the poignancy that radiates through the whole novel.
Whilst writing Human Acts, Kang does not shy away from the brutality of the massacre, and shows us the multifaceted elements of human behaviour that weaves in and out of the story. The novel shows us not only a first-hand experience of the massacre itself but shows us the depth of Kang’s own research. “From early December onward” she writes, “I abandoned all other work, even avoided seeing friends if I possibly could, just obsessively ploughed through reams of documents”.
Plagued by dreams, she stopped researching. I can sympathise wholeheartedly. I ploughed through the book barely coming up for air, and eventually put it down, shocked, morose and with my stomach tied in knots. Though I am already on book eight of my 2017 reading list, Human Acts is a novel that has stuck with me more than any other. It is storytelling at its finest, and I am supremely grateful Debora Smith translated it for us.