Human Acts by Han Kang

human-actsHan Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning The Vegetarian was 2016’s sleeper hit. The first of the South Korean author’s works to be translated into English, the book’s lurid and haunting story describes the shocking physical and psychological deterioration of an otherwise dutiful housewife who, to the shame of her social mores-abiding family, stops eating meat in an effort to transform herself into a tree.

Critics called it “ferocious,” a “mesmerizing mix of sex and violence.” Indeed, the simultaneously grotesque and bizarrely beautiful images Han evokes throughout are unlike anything you’ll find in modern literature.

Han’s latest — Human Acts — is equally revelatory, but for different reasons. This time, she takes a turning point in her nation’s history and turns the event into an unflinching reflection on the relationship between fear, defiance, conscience and grief, and how humans either cling to second chances or fail to find the will to move forward after a tragedy.

As translator Deborah Smith explains in the book’s introduction, in 1980, South Korea was “a heap of dry tinder waiting for a spark.” President Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who wrested control of the region in a coup in 1961, had been assassinated on Oct. 26, the year prior. One of Park’s proteges, Chun Doo-hwan, who shared many of Park’s ideas on how the country should be run, had taken his place.

By May, martial law was in full effect. Universities were closed. All antigovernment or otherwise incendiary activities were banned. In response, the southern city of Gwangju became the nexus of mass demonstrations and political unrest as students and unionized workers joined together to oppose the oppressive regime.

As often happens under similar circumstances (pick any number of genocides that have transpired in recent years), the government responded in full force. Protesters were arrested or gunned down and disposed of swiftly and without mercy. In the words of one of the book’s characters, the army “had been given the means to drive a bullet into the body of every person in the city twice over.”

Death totals are still disputed. Some sources estimate that anywhere between 200 (according to the military) and 2,000 (according to foreign press reports) civilians were killed during the massacre.

But Human Acts isn’t nonfiction. Instead, Han builds upon copious research and a return trip to her childhood home — she lived in Gwangju in the house of Dong-ho, one of her characters, until she was 9 — to reimagine the events that transpired over those hellacious days and in the years following the uprising.

The result is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s also brutally honest, graphic in its depiction of death and torture (waterboarding, a wooden ruler shoved into a character’s vagina, you name it), and unrelentingly bleak. As she so poignantly connected physical deprivation with the slaying of the psychological self in The Vegetarian, in Human Acts Han demonstrates just how fragile — and, in some cases, how stubbornly resilient — the human spirit can be.

The novel is divided into seven parts stretching from 1980 to 2013: six chapters that each focus on a different character and an epilogue written from the author’s perspective.

In the first section, 15-year-old Dong-ho relives the immediate moments after the first rounds of shots are fired. In hopes of finding a friend whom he was with during the demonstrations, Dong-ho joins a group of bleary-eyed middle school-through-college-age volunteers in a makeshift gymnasium morgue to separate out, tag and clean heaping piles of bloated corpses before they can be identified by relatives.

Subsequent chapters thrust readers headlong into others’ recollections relayed in first-, second- and third-person point of view. In a 1990 interview with a professor writing a dissertation on the topic, a survivor speaks of the unimaginable beatings he endured at the hands of the police. In 2002, a former factory girl shares her distaste for being touched and persistent inability to forge a normal life more than 20 years after being held and tortured.

There’s Dong-ho’s grieving mother, who, despite ardent attempts to save him, cannot prevent her son’s death in the end. And the voice of Dong-ho’s murdered friend, looking on as his body is thrown into a truck with all the others, “that festering flesh now fused into a single mass, like the rotting carcass of some many-legged monster.”

Most of the details presented in these chapters make for the heaviest sort of reading. But unlike a less confident writer, Han doesn’t overdramatize the facts when using them in her fiction. Just as she did in The Vegetarian, she favors a deliberate, almost clinical tone, which renders each word, each sentence, each carefully painted image all the more chilling.

In the end, what Han has re-created is not just an extraordinary record of human suffering during one particularly contentious period in Korean history, but also a written testament to our willingness to risk discomfort, capture, even death in order to fight for a cause or help others in times of need. Through her words, through her characters’ stories, the memories of their lost souls — and those of countless others — can live on “away from all this. Away to where the light shines through, to where the flowers bloom.”

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (January 20, 2017)

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