Pages Feature: “Human Acts” by Han Kang

“After you died I could not hold a funeral,
And so my life became a funeral.”

― Han Kang, Human Acts
From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a rare and astonishing (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.
In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.
The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.
An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

So many books to review, so little time! I haven’t had enough mental space the past few weeks for a “proper” book review but I don’t want the year to end without recommending some of my favorite reads. Human Acts by Han Kang doesn’t really need any more recommendations as it is already well celebrated so this will be another short post. I just want to add my voice to all the praises for this novel. Truth is, even though I was already expecting to like this book it still pleasantly surprised me. The more books I read, the less possibility there is to be shocked by anything so this was a really special experience.

“I’m fighting alone, every day. I fight with the hell that I survived. I fight with the fact of my own humanity. I fight with the idea that death is the only way of escaping this fact.”

Human Acts is centered on the 1980 Gwangju uprising in Korea and its lasting effects. It zooms in on individuals loosely connected in life, but tightly bound in death and as consequences of civil unrest and tyranny. ⁣

The novel is violence made beautiful in prose. It is beautiful in the sense that horror is hypnotizing, and in that savagery is beguiling. It is haunting in its thoughtful exploration of the human acts that define us: both the good and (sadly more of) the bad. It’s a story about moving on, but also of the penance of survival. ⁣

“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, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”

I read this because I loved the author’s other book The Vegetarian. If I was to compare the two, The Vegetarian is like an obscure art film; and Human Acts is a historical documentary/ drama. The two books are so different but also similar because of the author’s singular voice. ⁣

What are some of your favorite historical reads (fiction/nonfic) this year? ⁣

About the Author

Han Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She was born in Kwangju and at the age of 10, moved to Suyuri (which she speaks of affectionately in her work “Greek Lessons”) in Seoul.

She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. She began her writing career when one of her poems was featured in the winter issue of the quarterly Literature and Society. She made her official literary debut in the following year when her short story “The Scarlet Anchor” was the winning entry in the daily Seoul Shinmun spring literary contest.

Since then, she has gone on to win the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. As of summer 2013, Han teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts while writing stories and novels.

Book Details

Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Hardcover, 218 pages
Published January 17th 2017 by Hogarth Press (first published May 19th 2014)
Original Title소년이 온다
ISBN1101906723 (ISBN13: 9781101906729)
Edition Language English
Setting South Korea, 1980 (Korea, Republic of)
Literary Awards Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2018), International Dublin Literary Award Nominee for Shortlist (2018)

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