Human Acts by Han Kang

It was as that strange, vivid night was drawing to a close, as the faint blue light of dawn had begun to seep into the sky’s black ink, that I suddenly thought of you, Dong-ho. Yes, you’d been there with me, that day. Until something like a cold cudgel had suddenly slammed into my side. Until I collapsed like a rag doll. Until my arms flung themselves in mute alarm, amid the cacophony of footsteps drumming against the tarmac, ear-splitting gunfire. Until I felt the warm spread of my blood moving up over my shoulder, the back of my neck. Until then, you were with me.
— Han Kang, Human Acts

Having read and enjoyed Vegetarian, the book that won Han Kang the Man Booker International Prize for last year, I was excited to read the translated version of Human Acts once it was available. In one word, this book was: chilling. And while I had read quickly through Vegetarian, in many ways, I believe this book of hers was more deserving of the prize.

The characters spoke to your soul, and the violence of which this book makes you witness is violence experienced not just in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980, but of violence everywhere when those without power rise up: South Africa, Cambodia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, China... And while some voices may eventually grow loud enough to break the threshold, others will be extinguished. This book was a beautiful and successful attempt of the author's to light again the flame of a few people's narratives, to let their stories guide the way.

This book is also a reminder that there comes a time when we might be willing and ready to stand for something, whether it is against a faux-authoritarian president, or with our sisters and brothers who have been persecuted for too long, whether because of their race, religion or sexuality. We stand together, not to stand as victims, but to avoid becoming victims.

Translator Deborah Smith summarizes best this book: "Her [Kang's] novel, then, is both a personal and political response to these recent developments, and a reminder of the human acts of which we are capable, the brutal and the tender, the base and the sublime."

Micaela NeumannComment