With The Vegetarian, readers have found in Han Kang a writer of immense talent. From the basis of one character’s small, private decision, she wove a haunting narrative that is as beautiful as it is frightening and as political as it is personal. For Human Acts, her next book available in English (and as with The Vegetarian, also translated by Deborah Smith), Kang starts with a monumental, national event (though one likely unfamiliar to most Western readers), the Gwangju Uprising. Here, Kang proves again that she belongs in conversations about the most important authors working today and further reveals her prophetic insight into what it means to be human, both individually and collectively.
On May 18, 1980, students at Jeonnam University in Gwangju, South Korea, and other citizens in the area protested for greater democratization. The authoritarian government responded swiftly and harshly by sending in special forces who used clubs, bayonnets, and live ammunition on the crowds. The disruption lasted for nine days. “Official” reports listed around 200 casualties, but foreign journalists have argued that that number should actually be closer to 2,000.
Reading Human Acts is a gut-wrenching experience. Kang’s vivid descriptions of a giant pile of rotting corpses, torture, and gun violence haunt every beautiful sequence of love, longing, and connection. What’s even more unnerving, as an American reader, is how even a quick online search about this moment in history will reveal the United States governments’ support of the special forces that silenced these cries for democracy.
Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts leaves us with lingering questions about what it means to be human. Is our capacity for violence and creative means of torture a defining trait? Or is it our ability to endure those horrors or our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for others that makes us human? In a country that has a brutally violent past (and present), how do we remember? How do we integrate survivors’ stories into our moving forward? In a time fraught with political discord and violence on all fronts, Human Acts is a must-read novel that shines light on what we have lost…and what we are losing.