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.