Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
Human Acts tells the story of the 1980 Gwangju uprising and massacre in South Korea. It’s a book about the trauma of what happened, of being silenced, of the aftermath, and about resistance, class, and death. This is a stark and brutal read. But Han Kang’s skill is such that the violence is never sensationalised or gratuitous, and the book still has subtlety and layers.
Like The Vegetarian, Han Kang uses multiple perspectives and tenses. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, at different points in time, and each is connected in some way to the first chapter’s central character, Dong-ho. At times it was difficult to work out how a chapter’s narrator was connected to the others, but it always emerged eventually, and may be in part because I read it a number of sittings so it took me a few pages to pick up the thread again. The different perspectives and shifts in time mean that, as a reader, you piece together events and see both the immediate trauma and how that trauma stays and scars. Han Kang centers corpses, and the violence done to those corpses both literally and in terms of many families being unable to bury their dead with proper burial rites. The violence done to the body as a violence done to the soul – as the violence in Gwangju also afflicts the community’s soul.
But it’s not just about the violence of it. There’s also a lot about the ways people stand up to that violence (of both body and soul). As well as the more overt protests, there is also a sense of people holding on to hope or to remembrance, even though that doesn’t always work out well for them. It’s the small and the large ways a person can try to make a difference. One of the chapters is from the perspective of a man being interviewed for a university professor’s thesis on his experiences, and it seems the professor is doing it to highlight what happened and the voices who have been silenced. But it’s not. The man is being re-traumatised, and that only seems helpful to the professor, not to him. (The professor re-appears in a later chapter, not taking no for an answer when a woman doesn’t want to talk to him about what she saw). Sometimes, as an outsider to a situation, you need to examine whether your attempt to ‘make a difference’ is really elevating voices in a way which is helpful to them (something that resonated with me as a researcher).
The writing is simple and concise but beautiful. It feels very controlled, in a good way, and leaves you both detached and emotionally invested at the same time, in the same way many of the characters are struggling with their trauma through balancing detachment and emotional investment.
Normally I’d say not to read the introduction to a book before you’ve read it, especially classics, because they’re normally full of spoilers and assume you already have a working knowledge of the book. But not in this case. Definitely read Deborah Smith’s introduction first, as it provides some background to what was happening in South Korea at the time, as well as some interesting and helpful notes on the process of translating it. (Aside: I want all translations to have a translator’s note. Translation is an act of co-creation, so it’s always fascinating to see how and why particular choices were made).
I love Han Kang’s work. There’s always so much to pull apart and feel and learn and manages to do it all in relatively few pages. Though I think I prefer The Vegetarian, and it’s still early in the year, I’m almost certain this will be on my best of 2017 list.