22 October 2020

Human Acts by Han Kang


One of my favourite books I read in 2017 was Han Kang's The Vegetarian (reviewed in full here). I thought Kang's approach to storytelling and writing was really interesting and tried to keep her name in the back of my mind. A few months before Christmas 2019 I saw one of my old profs rate Human Acts on Goodreads and I recognized the author's name so I clicked on it. It seemed really interesting and I enjoyed The Vegetarian so I put it on my Christmas list.

Human Acts is only 224 pages and can be read fairly quickly because it is broken up into short sections. The book is set in the 1980s in Gwangju, South Korea, during a student uprising. The protests are violently broken up and many young students are either killed or tortured in prison. The book is split between a few different perspectives, including one from a dead body.

Similarly to The Vegetarian, some of the imagery is very graphic and disturbing. Kang really has a talent for describing horrific imagery..

Even after I'd lost so much blood that my heart finally stopped, the blood had continued to drain from my body, leaving the skin of my face as thin and transparent as writing paper. How strange, to see my own eyes shuttered in that blood-leached face."
I started reading this book as protests broke out all across the world after the murder of George Floyd. Watching a lot of footage on the news or Twitter of protesters getting seriously hurt in the streets is obviously disturbing and upsetting, and I found it added another layer while reading this book.

I found out later that the army had been provided with eight hundred thousand rounds that day. This was at a time when the population  of the city stood at four thousand. In other words, they had been given the means to drive a bullet into the body of every person in the city twice over."
An element I really loved about Human Acts was how it deals with the aftermath of violent events. A lot of the characters survive their imprisonment and torture, and Kang explores how they try to pick up their lives and move on.

Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded. The world darkens, like electric bulbs going out one by one. I am aware that I am not a safe person."
Han Kang


 
I would say my only issue with this book is that I don't know anything about South Korean politics and this isn't really the book to go to try and learn more about them. Kang drops you right into the uprising and you only get a few offhand comments about who's in power during this time.

I feel pretty stupid for being caught off guard by how depressing this book can be... I found The Vegetarian to be disturbing, but in a compelling way, whereas, Human Acts definitely takes on a different tone. Both books have a "fantastical" element to them, but Human Acts is much more grounded in tragedy and despair. I would say if the below quotation makes you upset, you should probably avoid reading the book:

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 this 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, damaged, slaughtered - is this the essential fate of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?"
Still, I think Kang is incredibly talented and her books feel so unique. I will always be on the lookout for what she has coming next.

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