{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

{Book Review} The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.*

It wasn’t easy for me to read this. Harry, the protagonist, would often tell tales of his travels in his various lives, and insert historical happenings here and there that I found tedious to read. Just when something exciting was happening, the next chapter would be a flashback to something he experienced while in Argentina or wherever, and this happened often enough that I had to pretty much force myself to just continue reading. To put matters in perspective, I took almost three and a half weeks to read the first half, and just a little under three days to finish the rest. I figured that perhaps it was hard for me to read about the 20th century because I wasn’t used to it, seeing as the historical fiction I usually read was around 18th-19th, and the 20th felt too recent and depressing with all its wars. Nevertheless, I think I would have appreciated that historical aspect more if the pacing wasn’t too slow for my liking. I’m really glad I stuck with the story though, because in retrospect, the idea of the kalachakra/ouroboran, people that ‘resurrect’ after death in the same time and place they were born, and the various implications of what their actions can do in the ripples of time and how they get killed turned out to be very interesting. Without revealing things too much, both hero and villain were kalachakra, so you can just imagine them battling with all their wits throughout whole lifetimes, only to resume it when they are born again and start over from wherever and whenever they came from. A kalachakra’s date and place of birth, along with his/her parents, are vital information because this is the only way they can be completely killed, so you can just imagine the lengths each side will go through to find out each other’s origins first. I wasn’t a big fan of all the flashbacks, but as you can see, I found the main story line exciting, and by the time it was clear who the villain was (you’ll only find out around the second half of the book – told ya it took too long to get things going here), I couldn’t get myself to stop reading anymore. In the end, I decided that the entertainment I got from the main story outweighed my dissatisfaction with how my relationship with this book began, hence the stars.

This book is part historical, part sci-fi, part travelogue/biography, so if you have an interest in these things, read this by all means! It’ll be worth it in the end.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 3.5/5
Hardcover, 432 pages
Author: Claire North
Publisher: Redhook
Published: January 1, 2014
Language: English
Genre: Science Fiction, Historical