Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Kang Han

Human Acts by Han Kang

Very rarely a book pervades my dreams. Human Acts is such a book. I was deeply affected by it, not because it is unfathomable to me that humans are capable of acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale, history is full of horrible acts of human violence, but because it is such a powerful book. It is done perfectly. It is deeply moving and disturbing. It is beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside.

I am not sure I have the right words to describe Human Acts. To me, it is a book that feels, it is alive. It feels pain, not just physical pain, but also emotional. It is a trauma that takes many forms, you can’t run away of it, you are the victim but you are also the source of all that pain.

Human Acts explores the traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre, in South Korea in 1980. In 1979, the then military dictator Park Chung-Hee, was assassinated by his protégé  General Chun Doo-Hwan.  Park Chung-Hee, was the father of the ex-president Park Geun-Hye who was impeached by the National Assembly in 2016 and she is now an inmate  at Seoul Detention Center. Using the excuse of rumoured North Korea infiltration, Chun Doo-Hwan extended martial law across the country, closing universities, restricting freedom of press and banning political activities. In the southern city of Gwangju there was a student uprising that lasted a few days before crushed by the army. Thousands of people have been killed, injured, arrested and tortured.

Han Kang focuses on the feeling of being. What it means to be human. What humans do in the face of such violence. And if violence is part of being human, how can we accept that we are or can be one of those human beings that inflict such a terrible pain to others.  There are a lot of questions  but don’t expect to find answers.

The stories in the book are intertwined but on different timescales, from the time of the massacre to the present day.  As in The Vegetarian, violence is at the centre of things, but in Human Acts Han Kang further explores human strength and dignity, as well as the impact on the lives of those being exposed to violence.

Human Acts has been translated wonderfully by Deborah Smith.

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian is a disturbing and extraordinary novel, about the transformation of a seemingly “unremarkable in every way” woman to a sensual, provocative, ethereal being who has rejected completely the outside world. It is Han Kang’s – a South Korean writer –  first novel, wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, in English (Portobello, 2015).

Haunted by grotesque and aggressive recurring dreams, Yeong-hye decides one morning to become a vegetarian.

“Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump.  Because of meat.  I ate too much meat.  The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there.  Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”

2016-03-31 21.08.40Her vegetarianism is a shocking act of mutiny in a society that vegetarianism is unusual and societal norms and traditions are strictly obeyed. It provokes an aggressive, violent reaction by her family.  The consequences are dire, the main characters are forced to re-examine their own lives and their values, and when finally, the fragile façade disintegrates, the breakdown of the family is inevitable and definitive.

The visions have a very profound effect to Yeong-hye, gradually, she is being transformed to a primitive, almost ethereal being, she becomes a “person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being”, driven by her inner passions and desires.

The Vegetarian consists of three chapters. Yeong-hye is the focal point in all three parts of The Vegetarian, but in each chapter is different. Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, a mediocre, dull person, narrates the first chapter ‘The Vegetarian’. The second chapter, Mongolian Mark’, focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law (his name remains unrevealed to the reader), an unsuccessful graphic artist who becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s thin body, which rather than provoking lust, it was a body that “made one want to rest one’s gaze quietly upon it”.  In the third and final chapter, ‘Flaming Trees’, In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister and successful businesswoman, begins to question her marriage and  her relationship with her sister, husband, and father. She is tired, worn down by life, she is failing “to cope with all that her sister reminded her of”.

In this extraordinary, imaginative, unsettling and dark novel, Han Kang explores the primal violent and sensual instincts hidden deep in our unconscious self.  In Yeong-hye’s personal rebellion lies a deep despair and doubt about humanity. In a society that hates any form of diversity and individuality, she rejects human violence and male domination by transforming herself into a plant.

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