Han Kang shot to fame outside South Korea when she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, along with translator Deborah Smith, for her unsettling and enigmatic novel The Vegetarian. Human Acts, the second of her books to be translated into English by Smith, bears similarities with its predecessor in the way it structures the narrative, and relies on subtext and evocative imagery. However, it eschews the deeply personal themes of the former for something more ambitious. It is fair to say it succeeds in this endeavour.
The book centres on the Gwangju uprising of 1980, a mass protest spearheaded by university students pressing for democratic reforms in the country following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, the dictator who had ruled South Korea for eighteen years (reading the book now was particularly timely given that Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Guen-hye, served as the President of South Korea until her impeachment recently). The uprising was short-lived, suppressed in startlingly brutal fashion over the course of a week by the authoritarian regime that followed Park Chung-hee.
Given the intensely political context within which the book is set, it is a little surprising that it is light on political posturing and lengthy expositions on the evils that an unbridled dictatorship brings. Instead, the book focuses on the personal travails of a handful of characters, using their stories to paint a picture of the uprising and, crucially, its aftermath. This decision to train the book’s sight on the individual stories rather than constructing a grand narrative arc elevates the book into more than just a retelling of the event. It helps the author ask some difficult questions about human nature, questions that come with no easy answers.
Part of the reason for this can be attributed to the unflinching descriptions of the atrocities committed by the military in their bid to quell the rebellion. In her previous book, Han Kang had already shown an uncanny knack of constructing prose that is violent and visceral, but crucially, never exploitative. This skill is evident in Human Acts as well, from the scenes of torture doled out by the military to the descriptions of the corpses, in various stages of decomposition, of the people who died at the hands of the oppressors. It is impossible to read these passages without one’s gut coiling in horror, particularly when one realises that such retribution was neither proportionate nor necessary. That several of the victims were children or those just stepping out of childhood makes it even worse.
These victims, for everyone involved is a victim regardless of whether they survived the carnage, are introduced in the first segment of the book. It bears mentioning here that the book is almost structured as a collection of short stories, each one following a different individual, but all of them connected by their link to the uprising and its fallout. So we have a fifteen-year-old boy who survived the initial onslaught and then spent days helping identify the dead while searching for a friend who went missing. We have a man who was incarcerated after the uprising and tortured for weeks while the military tried to extract a phony confession from him. We follow a woman who survived the purge and now works as an editor, trying to negotiate the stringent censor restrictions that made any frank conversation about what happened all but impossible. We meet a mother pining for a dead son, bemoaning her own inability to protect him.
On their own, these stories would certainly be powerful reminders about the horrors that took place. But what makes them even more effective is that they occur over the span of nearly three decades. By picking up the tale after every few years, and focusing on a different individual, the book emphasises just how deeply embedded the scars are. That several of these stories are also told in the second person narrative is a stylistic gamble that pays off, bringing an immediacy to the stories and forcing a reader to insert themselves into the text.
If one were to search for a reason to grumble, it would be that the narrative is consistently depressing and that the story doesn’t really address the opposite side. Aside from a few sentences towards the end about how certain soldiers were reluctant to open fire on unarmed civilians, the military is uniformly portrayed as being demonic, consisting of faceless and nameless creatures with no consciences and who have no inhibitions in inflicting pain and leaving behind violence in their wake.
These musings, while natural, will miss the larger point the book makes, about the depths to which humans can fall when the proverbial shackles are taken off. It reminded me of the performance artist Marina Abramovich and the infamous show in which she allowed her body to be an object, subject to the whims and fancies of the audience. The way people behaved in that setting is not too dissimilar to the way the military behaved, knowing they had the strength in numbers and ammunition to brush away any dissent without suffering any repercussions for their actions. And at the end of the day, it is our actions that reveal the kind of humans we are. The title of the book seems particularly apt when we understand this.
It would be remiss to talk about the book but not mention the author’s personal connection to the uprising. Han Kang is originally from Gwangju, her family having shifted to Seoul just before the uprising when she was nine years old. In a metaphysical twist to the narrative, the epilogue of the book follows the writer herself as she returns to her hometown to confront some of the memories from her childhood that have haunted her in the intervening years. It would have been easy for such an ending to be reduced to the form of a gimmick but the clear-eyed and deft manner in which she handles it ensures that the book ends on the strongest note possible. In fact, clear-eyed and deft are attributes that can be ascribed to the whole narrative and not just to its ending, something that makes this work a troubling, but decidedly essential, reading.