‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2016).
Han Kang’s second novel, Human Acts, describes horrific acts of violence done to the body, mind, and spirit and the resulting tension between remembering and forgetting. Kang makes visible the indelible scars of violence left on the soul and the body just as much as she highlights the violence done on the landscape of the Gwangju province (South Korea) during the May uprising of 1980 and the ensuing thirty-three years that followed.
Kang allows the memories of the May uprising to erupt anew as ‘a reminder of the human acts of which we are all capable, the brutal, the tender, the base and the sublime’ (p. 5). The question that resonates across time and cultural barriers is how to reconcile our humanity with such acts of violence? Human Acts is a reminder that ‘the past, like the bodies of the dead, hasn’t stayed buried’ (p. 4). Like testimony at a trial, the matter of fact tone of this novel brings out the ugly, brutal, cruelty of humanity that dares the reader to look away and yet compels one to continue examining the evidence as it is presented page after page.
Human Acts does not begin with historical context or background one might expect with a fictional work surrounding such a powerful historical event such. The explanation comes later, through the memories of survivors. The reader enters the story as the uprising has just occurred and the scene is littered with bodies, unnamed, unidentified, voiceless bodies ‘piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied’ (p. 2). We are immediately thrown into the logistical nightmare of managing the dead, caring for the wounded and dying, memorializing the dead with hastily altered rituals and burying the dead en masse. The often-gruesome descriptions make one frown and cringe and at times make the novel difficult to read. As one reads one must also address one’s own understanding of and response to human suffering. This is not a novel with a happy ending nor is it a novel for the faint hearted. Kang’s multiple narrators do what Tennessee Williams was known for and similarly she breaks down the fourth wall, the barrier between reader and author and directly addresses ‘you’ as an active participant, as ‘you,’ the dead and lastly, ‘you,’ the living observer and historian. Kang deftly moves the reader backward and forward seamlessly in time, demonstrating the powerful effects of one moment on the next.
Chapter One introduces the reader to Dong-Ho’s through his singular narrative told in the second person ‘you’. You, as Dong-Ho, search for your friend, Jeong-dae; yet you know he was shot in the massacre. You witnessed his death and you ran. When you volunteer to help catalog the dead, you find that you cannot outrun the memory of that day. The nameless dead, the ‘silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink’ (p. 13) serve as ghastly reminders that haunt your waking and sleeping in silent testimony of the fallen like Jeong-dae.
From a corporeal, out of body perspective, Chapter Two introduces Jeong-dae through as he attempts to reconcile himself to his death. Seeking to break free from his broken, dead body he finds that he is strangely connected to it as if something is holding him in place. Jeong-dae encounters others, like him, who are but vapors that seem to appear and disappear into nothingness while others linger near their lifeless bodies. The dead ‘come out, come forward, emerge, surface, rise up’ (p. 4) one nameless witness after another as evidence of the violence that has happened in Gwangju. This is perhaps the most compelling and haunting chapter – the dead have no voice by which to speak or mourn and no body by which to tenderly touch another.
In the remaining chapters of the novel, Kang propels the reader forward in time, allowing the memories of the past to rise and haunt the present living of survivors. Like an anchor to a boat, the violent recollections of the past anchor the survivors to the past in spite of time moving forward. Death might have been a blessing because ‘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 (p. 140) As Kang writes the narrative of the survivors, she takes on the ‘deliberately assumed calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge’ (Levi 1980: 382). She presents each chapter as categorically as one would present evidence at a trial demonstrating ‘slippages between past and present, giving the sense of the former constantly intruding on or shadowing the latter’ (p. 5). Nothing is forgotten even if it is not voiced.
The novel is very much a delicate work of balance and counterbalance that creates a space from which we may ask the sometimes difficult, soul searching questions about who we are as humans and why we do the things we do. Kang leads us to consider what our own human acts say about human nature and asks us to consider if humanity is nothing more than something ‘to be degraded, damaged, slaughtered–is this the essential fate of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?’ (p. 140)
Kang’s novel, Human Acts, is a well-written account of how humanity is shaped by trauma long after the traumatic event has happened. This is a compelling and richly detailed historically based fiction that quite clearly demonstrates the blurred binaries of life/death, good/evil, past/present, them/us and remembering/forgetting. With brilliantly sculpted prose, Kang shows that violence contaminates all that it encounters whether directly or indirectly and that humanity must constantly struggle to address the question what it means to be human and to act humanely.
Reviewed by Dr. Katrina Hinson, Assistant Professor of English at Tarleton State University, in Stephenville, Texas. Her research interests include illness narratives and social media, rhetoric of health and medicine and narrative medicine.
Correspondence to Dr Katrina Hinson.
Levi, Primo. 2003. If this is a Man and The Truce. Abacus Press.