Book review: Human Acts by Han Kang

19 January 2018 - inspiration

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughteredis this the essential fate of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”

Based on real-life historical events, Human Acts is a raw and sombre examination of humanity. Han Kang explores a collection of individual experiences all connected to one eventthe brutal suppression of the Gwangju uprising. She leaves readers asking: What does it mean to be human? Are we fundamentally cruel?

In 1980, in the city of Gwangju, South Korea, nearly a quarter of a million people participated in pro-democracy protests against the authoritarian military rule. The protests began on 18 May 1980 and would last ten days and result in the brutal massacre of hundreds of civilians by government forces. The Gwangju Uprising, as the events were later called, became known as the cornerstone of South Korean democracy and is the basis of Han Kang’s Human Acts.

Spanning three decades (1980-2013), the novel consists of interconnected stories of seven fictional and non-fictional survivors and victims. The author tells of how these individuals are each connected to the events of 1980—an editor manoeuvring a book on the subject past the government censor, an ex-prisoner forced to relive his memories for the sake of an academic’s thesis, a former factory girl recounting her brutalisation at the hands of her torturers, a mother’s struggle for justice for her son who was killed in the protests, and even the author’s own journey as she reflects on the terrible price of atrocity.

As the characters struggle with their understanding of humanity in the aftermath of the events, Human Acts reveals itself to be a powerful elegy for what was lost. “After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral,” goes a line in one chapter. “And so my life became a funeral”.

Han Kang doesn’t shy away from the weight of the subject matter. She explores the social and political catalysts behind the massacre, tackles the tragedy and fallout, and still manages to make the novel about the humanity of the victims and survivors. The novel’s ultimate questions are: What is human? Is violence as human as compassion? Han Kang leaves these questions unanswered, but by giving a voice to the silenced, she paves a way for recognition and understanding.

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