{Book Review} Human Acts by Han Kang

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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 an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

Human Acts by Han Kang | Goodreads

The events of the Gwangju Uprising reminded me so much of Martial Law in the Philippines in ’70s, so while I admittedly didn’t know much about the former prior to reading this book, the pain and trauma the characters experienced reminded me so much of the latter.

The translator, Deborah E. Smith, wrote an essay about her experience translating this from Han Kang’s original manuscript in Korean. My personal favorite bit was how Koreans have two main verbs to convey the act of remembering. Upon my own research, I found she was referring to the words 기억하다 and 기억나다. 기억하다 and 기억나다 can both be translated to the English “to remember,” but whereas 기억하다 simply means the act of remembering (기억 memory + 하다 to do = individual is the active agent), 기억나다 (나다 means to sprout, break out) literally means to rise up. In Smith’s words,

“…memory is the active agent, leaving the individual with little control over what or when they remember.”

I kept this in mind the entire time I read this book, which made the experience much more poignant. Similar to how feelings of pain and loss could come up unbidden after losing a loved one, anxiety and trauma haunts the characters even decades after the fact. Interestingly enough, the book only starts after the massacre itself, so everything the readers would know about the uprising would only be through the recollections of the characters.

Han Kang also made the bold choice of starting the novel with graphic but matter-of-fact descriptions of the corpses in the aftermath. As a reader, I was brought on a journey of initially being cold and detached, then only really feeling the unease and pain the more I read. I’m not sure if it was really what the author intended, but I thought it was very brilliantly done.

It’s an amazing book! I can only imagine how reading it in the original Korean must have been like (but hopefully won’t have to someday!).

In a nutshell…

Rating: 5/5

218 pages

Author: Han Kang, Deborah E. Smith (translator)

Original Language: Korean

Published: 2017

Genre: Literary, Fiction

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