Title: Human Acts
Author: Han Kang
Publisher: Hogarth Press
Page Count: 218
Publication Date: 2014
Category/Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Cultural
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.16)
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.0)
From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a rare and astonishing (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.
In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.
The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.
An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of a historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.
When a crowd of student protestors took hold of a Korean city in the 1980s, government forces brutally suppressed the uprising; gunning down, beating and all but wiping out those in the area. Many were left dead in the streets, many more were left wounded, and the rest were imprisoned where they were subjected to even more horrific events. The Gwangju Uprising, or The Gwangju Massacre as it is referred to depending on who you speak to, is a truly disturbing act of violence in our lifetime.
Han Kang sets the stage of this tragedy with a pile of corpses and an ocean of blood.
“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?”
This book is brutal and uncompromising. There is no mercy for the reader, just as there was none for the characters that Han Kang brought to life.
Fifteen-year-old Dong-ho is the focal point of the novel. The opening chapter entitled The Boy, 1980 introduces us to Dong-Ho, but written in the second person singular narrative voice ‘You’. The chapters that follow are a collection of individual experiences all connected by the Gwangju Uprising and Dong-ho’s death covering a thirty-year period —from 1980 to 2013; his best friend, Jeong-dae who is killed during a demonstration and cannot escape the darkness, volunteers, and protestors who later are threatened by the regime that venerates censorship, who struggle to recover from the traumas, and who account for the time in prison. And lastly, Dong-ho’s mother who tries to grasp the terrifying reality that destroyed her world.
Each one is a voice that narrates from the darkness of Human Acts, the cruelty that people are capable of, and attempts to find meaning in the aftermath of unrelenting tragedy.
Our experiences might have been similar, but they were far from identical. What good could an autopsy possibly do? How could we ever hope to understand what he went through, he himself, alone? What he’d kept locked away inside himself for all those years.
The Epilogue was a masterful way of transporting the story from fiction into the real world. Han Kang’s family had left Gwangju just one year before when she was 10 years old. In the house, her home that she grew up in and left behind, three young people had lost their lives in the massacre. One was a boy Dong-Ho who had probably shared the same room she had lived in.
Human Acts is a somber and deeply moving book, haunting and powerful beyond belief. Han Kang’s writing is gorgeous, emotionally difficult and a masterpiece.
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?
I’m not sure how a book can be so beautiful but at the same time rip my heart out, but it did. It is not for the faint-hearted. I cried more than a few times, my stomach was tied in knots and my heart was pounding out of my chest. There are horrendous torture scenes depicted and the heartbreaking anguish of a mother’s love and a friend’s guilt. But as always when human acts are at their worst, there are also acts of courage and solidarity and love and hope.