Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an author’s first translation into English, yet Han’s surreal story and the skillful politicization of the characters and events, combined with 2015 BTBA poetry judge Deborah Smith’s excellently smooth and poetic translation, meant that the gamble paid off. Human Acts, Han’s second novel to appear in English, is a very different book in terms of content, yet equally composed and controlled.
In May 1980, shortly after the instatement of dictator Chun Doo-hwan after nearly two decades of Park Chung-hee, the Gwangju uprising began—students’ and workers’ protests against Chun Doo-hwan’s restrictive regime. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the police and the military, and the way the dead were treated, allowed to pile up, unclaimed, was particularly horrific.
But this novel does not tell a chronological story of the events of the uprising, in the way that Sunil Yapa’s new novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, follows the first day of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Both have a cast of characters with different perspectives on the event, but it’s significant that Yapa’s novel includes police—who are presented as fully human—while Han’s does not.
In the way it reports on the bleak brutality of the police, the army and the government—a brutality that becomes simultaneously both more cruel and more banal as the novel progresses—_Human Acts_ has more in common with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the gulag and the semi-random, quota-filling prisoner-taking methods of the Soviets. There’s the same inevitability, the same horrifying repetition of treatment of people, each with their own remarkably individual stories.
The novel opens with Dong-ho, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy. He has become caught up in the uprising more or less by accident and has been searching for his missing friend. He ends up helping out in a makeshift morgue in a school gym—the main morgue being full—as he and a group of students attempt to keep the piled up bodies from decaying too fast before they can be claimed and properly buried. He has the opportunity to study wounds, to wonder how such a thing can be happening in his formerly quiet, predictable life of school and home.
The next section is told from the point of view of his missing friend, who, we quickly learn, is dead. The possibilities a dead narrator offers for tweeness and cutesy emotional manipulation make me nervous, but Jeong-dae’s section, which includes his search for his sister who has also been killed, is genuinely heart breaking. His happy memories of when he was alive are interspersed with the brutal reality of the decaying bodies all around him—flesh that he comes to hate. His chapter ends with a terrible revelation that shifts the ground of the novel around the reader.
Then we move ahead to 1985, to Kim Eun-sook, who has been beaten up because of her publisher’s involvement in publishing a dissident, and then to a prisoner who recalls both the torture and starvation experienced in prison as well as the events of the uprising, remembered very differently from the official accounts used to justify the heavy-handed response.
Characters from one story appear in others, and we return to learn what happened to the students who worked alongside Dong-ho caring for the dead bodies. Nobody is able to forget this traumatic event; it has scarred them for the rest of their lives, which they frequently end themselves as a direct result of their suffering.
The final section, from 2013, is an epilogue written from the author’s perspective and explaining her personal motivation for writing this particular book. Nine years old at the time of the uprising, Han gradually learns that one of her father’s students—a boy who had moved into their old house when they moved away from Gwangju—was killed. As an adult Han devotes a great deal of time to researching the events and interviewing people involved. As her research progresses, she finds it increasingly difficult to take part in normal life and socialize with other people.
Human Acts is a disturbing and upsetting book, but the way its characters react to the official brutality reminds readers that people are capable of committing barbaric acts anywhere, any time, even when civilization seems secure. Like Sumia Sukkar’s underappreciated The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War, Human Acts is a book that does not permit a complacent, that-could-never-happen-here attitude; readers are not simply allowed to smugly edutain themselves with a literary form of atrocity tourism. Instead, the focus is on people, on the human body itself, and on trying to make some kind of sense out of the senseless.