Human Acts was my book clubs chosen read for the month of November. Human Acts is the latest novel by South Korean author Han Kang who won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her novel The Vegetarian. Both novels are translated by Deborah Smith who has also written the introduction for Human Acts which provides useful background information on the Gwangju uprising that forms the basis for this harrowing novel.
‘How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?
Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?’
The horror of the Gwanju massacre began in 1980, just a few months after Han Kang and her family moved away from her place of birth. I was interested to read that the events of the uprising happened in 1980 when Han Kang was nine years old but she only discovered the devastation aged twelve when she came across a family memorial album hidden from her and her siblings view. The album contained graphic photographs taken by journalists of the victims, photos which she would never forget. These images left a young Han Kang afraid, frightened of the humans that could inflict such pain and suffering. And years later, it proved to be the inspiration behind Human Acts, a novel which outlines the brutality of the massacre from the perspectives of different people close to the violence. And from the opening pages, the extent of the violence is described in unflinching detail. It begins with a boy named Dong-ho who is helping in a makeshift morgue – covering the bodies, waiting as loved ones stop by to identify and grieve for their lost family, whilst many bodies lay unclaimed, their bodies abused and abandoned.
‘She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything.’
Human Acts is told in the form of six interconnecting chapters each of which is told from the perspective of a different person connected to the massacre and using different narrative styles. The opening chapter is from the perspective of the boy, Dong-ho, and we also hear from his friend, an editor, a prisoner, a mother and a factory girl. All of these characters have harrowing stories to tell and the one I found particularly moving was that of the boy’s friend who we discover has been killed. His chapter is told from the perspective of a human being whose soul is separated from their body, watching the brutality unfold around him as he lies within an ever growing pile of corpses. This was a powerful, disturbing image, further emphasised by the boy questioning his death, and his soul. And with each turn of a page more horror unfolds with the violence and torture inflicted on the victims vividly described. Given the nature of the events that unfold some passages in the novel make for difficult reading but the messages amongst this violence are important ones. This book is a portrayal of the very worst of humanity, but it also provides the victims of the Gwanju massacre with a voice, representing a survival of the human spirit.
‘I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.’
Human Acts is a heartbreaking and important book which has brought my attention to the plight of the people who suffered during the massacre. Sensitively translated by Deborah Smith, it is a story of humanity at its most frightening, but it is also a story of hope, dignity and strength.