Human Acts – a review

This year from May 18 to May 27 will mark the 40 year anniversary of The Gwangju Uprising. During this period, Gwangju citizens took up arms (by robbing local armouries and police stations) when local Chonnam University students who were demonstrating against the martial law government were fired upon, killed, raped and beaten by government troops.The event is sometimes called 5·18, in reference to the date the movement began. The number of lives lost is still a matter of contention, as many deaths are reportedly uncounted and hidden. It is this event, and the aftermath that provides the main theme of this book.

If all you know of South Korea is BTS, skincare and BBQ, this will provide quite a shock to the system. I, for one, was shocked that I knew so little about Korean history, and the hard journey that the Korean people went through in order to reach democracy and some small part of justice. This journey is one that is still ongoing but once you know of it, you can see it embedded throughout the current social and political atmosphere today. The echos of the Gwangju Uprising still ring on. This book was not easy to read; not because it was poorly written, but because the experiences, stories and images portrayed in this book were so shocking and upsetting that I had to take day long breaks between reading in order to emotionally recover and pull myself together. This is not light, bedtime reading. You will continue to think about this book for months after.

The many victims of the factual massacre, are portrayed by the fictional character of Dong-ho, a young boy who looks for the corpse of his best friend, a spirit tethered to a pile of rotting corpses soon to be set ablaze without burial rites, the mother of a dead boy, an editor trapped under censorship, a torture victim remembering her captivity, and, finally, a writer, attempting to piece together the scattered remains of these other victims. The bodies, the complaints, the questions and the hurt grows too many. While the bodies are moved to the school gymnasium, where they slowly begin to rot and decay, the stench of the injustice done in Gwangju permeates every page of the book.

As I read, I felt the strongest sense of synesthesia. Whenever the next traumatic event occurred, through the writing of Han Kang, it was almost like I felt it too. I experienced or empathetically emulated the sensations being described. It was… uncomfortable to say the least. Writing her own review on the same book, Annalisa Quinn writes that “Mercy is a human impulse, but so is murder,” and I agree. While there are so many examples of human kindness and human mundane-ness, there are also many examples of human cruelty. Human acts are both innately good and innately evil.

The seven chapters of Human Acts describe the breaking of humanity for seven people. The essential goodness of other people, the stability of government, the sense that we are safe inside our skin, only to realise that to be human means “to be degraded, damaged, slaughtered…” This is the fate and the action of what it means to be human. we degrade, damage and slaughter and we are degraded, damaged and slaughtered.

While there are undoubtedly many translation errors or changes that mean one doesn’t experience the true effect of Han Kang’s novel, it is still a wake up to a serious gap in people knowledge and understanding of South Korean culture and history. Its an unfamiliar story, but it is yet somehow familiar in theme; we know pain, we know loss, we know fear, we know betrayal, we know hope and we know survival. I wholly encourage you to read this book, as well as Han Kang’s other works like The Vegetarian, but failing that I encourage you to learn about the history of Korea and to begin to fill the gap in your knowledge when considering the acts of humanity from around the world.

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