I already have a mounting pile of books on my TBR list, but every now and then you stumble upon a book that bypasses the TBR list completely. This is exactly what happened with Human Acts by Han Kang. As soon as I had bought it, I had to read it. And wow, what a read!
The novel begins with the aftermath of the student protests at Jeonnam University, South Korea 1980. Dong-Ho is arranging corpses, cleaning and labelling them ready for their temporary holding place in the gymnasium, where they can be identified by relatives. He is expecting to find the body of his friend. The narrative then shifts perspective; to the friend left rotting on a pile of bodies, to an editor, to a factory worker, to Dong-Ho’s mother and finally to Han Kang herself. All are dealing with the effects of the massacre in different ways, at different times.
For context, the Gwangju Uprising lasted 9 days between 18th – 27th May 1980 – during that time students who were protesting the Chun Doo-Hwan government were shot and beaten by government forces. Exactly how many people were killed remains a source of contention; the military statistics state 200 people died whilst foreign press reports suggest much higher figures. It is an event that still has bearing on the national conscience of South Korea, this much is evident in the brutal way that Kang describes the violence and torture suffered even after the 27th May 1980 by ‘political dissenters’, the unflinching cross examination of censorship and the acceptance [or lack] of governmental responsibility.
At times Human Acts was difficult to read because of the graphic language and imagery used, but it was equally compelling to witness how events had permeated society up until the present – the ex-prisoner is still fiercely traumatised by his memories of the torture inflicted on him, Dong-Ho’s mother is still affected by the loss of life and even Kang is grappling with the past and how to give it a voice. For the record, she does it beautifully and with style.
Read it. You won’t be disappointed.