Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club. I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.
The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful. It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’. It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.
Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so. Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’. The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country. I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.
The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood. Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice. The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters. It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.
Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective. This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind. So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’. It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench… The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins. Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’. This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.
The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered. It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’. Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body. Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat. Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.
Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against. ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things. Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies. Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.
The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within. For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’. Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.
Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation. The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings. The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places. Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too. Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.