Book 33: Human Acts




Think of these words..

Now apply them to your heart.

Yup, that’s it. That’s the feeling. This book tore me apart. And just when you think you’re done, it tears away a little more. Each time you think about it, you peel back another layer. You remember that it’s based on a real event. You realise that the Epilogue is nonfiction and that this entire novel is an act of fictional remembering, an attempt at healing. You realise that due to censorship, the current generation of South Korea lives at a total disconnect from their parents and grandparents. You realise how young the murdered were. You realise that this happens the world-over, and that noone blinks an eye and that so. much. suffering. can come at the hands of the nation you trust. And that the world moves on – but not everyone moves the same.

Welcome to my review of Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang.

“Shoot-outs, heroism, David and Goliath – this is the Gwangju Uprising as it has already been told in countless films, and a lesser writer might have been tempted to start with such superficially gripping tropes. Han Kang starts with bodies. Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present a both a logistical and ontological dilemma… in the Korean context, violence done to the body is a violation of the spirit/soul” – Deborah Smith introducing Human Acts

I used to be the type of reader that would pick up a book, love and discard it without even glancing at the author’s name. To me, it was all about the story. Recently, however,  I’ve found context to be so rewarding. Firstly, I picked up this book solely based on the fact that I loved The Vegetarian. Without knowing the subject material, plot, or anything. I just wanted to read another novel by this woman.

Then, I realised the connection between the author and the central conflict in the book. Han Kang herself was born and raised in Gwangju and so this piece, albeit fiction, is also her process of working through some deep emotions. This introduction taught me that, taught me a little history surrounding the events in the book, alerted me to class struggle, types of memory and even the sentiment of uprising. I can’t wait to delve into this short novel.

“The national anthem rang out like a circular refrain, one verse clashing with another against the constant background of weeping, and you listened with baited breath to the subtle dissonance this created. As though this, finally, might help you understand what the nation really was”

This book is sombre. It’s searing, dark, gory, unapologetic. It’s beautiful and breathtaking. The material is difficult to go through (full disclosure there’s a lot of death and torture) but it’s so worth it.

The first few pages are made up of rotting corpses and a young boy grappling with thoughts that no junior in highschool should have to experience.
When your own country’s situation is the cause of so many deaths, including those of people close to you, how do you continue to feel loyalty to it? How do you sing its praise? Who is responsible for the nation? Who is accountable for these unburied souls?
You know, just your average every-day conundrum slipping in between “what’s for lunch” and “my dog ate my homework”.

The character vignettes are abstract but they’re all tied together and reading from the different perspectives across the chapters is like watching a domino chain topple over. With the spark being the Gwangju uprising, toppling people over in waves that reach decades into the future. Conflict is a lasting and deep wound, and it might take multiple generations to heal. That’s what this book quietly shows us: that a gunshot in 1980 will ring and ricochet in 2013.

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