Why Han Kang’s Human Acts is likely to be my book of the year

by Philip Gowman on 17 February, 2016

in Book Reviews, Conference reports, Event reports and reviews, Korean literature in translation

Human ActsHan Kang: Human Acts
Translated by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 2016, 224pp
Originally published as 소년이 온다, Changbi Publishers Inc, Seoul, 2014
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Han Kang’s Human Acts hits the bookshelves in the UK just as The Vegetarian starts to make waves in the US. The latter book has already made its mark in the UK, making it in to several “best of 2015” lists.

At first sight the two novels look as different as chalk and cheese: The Vegetarian could possibly be described as a family drama about what happens when a woman decides to give up meat; and Human Acts as a political novel about an event in history which even now, more than 35 later, is controversial and sensitive. The two could hardly be more different.

But that analysis is only to scratch the surface of both novels. The earlier novel is about a woman who is determined to reject human violence, but in her efforts to save herself ironically ends up destroying herself. In Human Acts Han Kang seeks to answer two questions – or “riddles”, as she refers to them: how can humans perform such incredible acts of violence? And, in the face of such violence, what motivates people to perform what one hopes are acts which reflect a different side to human nature: to stay behind in the Gwangju Provincial building – facing certain defeat at the hands of the military – or to queue up to give blood to help the victims of the soldiers’ violence?

So both novels seek to explore the internal, psychological elements of what it is to be human. And in terms of form, there is also a striking resemblance: in The Vegetarian we hardly ever experience the viewpoint of the subject of the novel, the vegetarian herself. Instead, we experience what is happening to her through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Similarly in Human Acts only the first chapter gives the viewpoint of the central character of the novel, a teenage boy called Dong-ho. And even that is written in the second person, not the first. The following six chapters are from the point of view of people who knew Dong-ho, directly or indirectly. And there is even a link, imagined or otherwise, with the author herself, because the final, eighth chapter is from the perspective of the novelist, who lived in Gwangju until a few months before the event in 1980, when she was aged 9. In the novel, when her family moved out of their Gwangju hanok, it is the family of the young Dong-ho who move in.

Han Kang with Philippe Sands at Foyles on 13 January

Han Kang with Philippe Sands at Foyles on 13 January (photo: LKL)

In between are the perspectives of Dong-ho’s mother, friend, erstwhile colleague looking after the corpses of the victims, and others with a tangential relationship. Through these different viewpoints we build up a picture of the last days and hours of Dong-ho, an ordinary schoolboy who lived in extraordinary times and, so we hope, performs in a way that we ourselves would act. As a human being.

Han Kang’s motivation in writing the novel was twofold: firstly the urge to unravel the two seemingly unsolvable riddles posed above (to do with violence and the response to it); and secondly she was driven by external influences: the 2009 Yongsan tragedy when developers were seeking to evict residents from their homes which were condemned for redevelopment: Han Kang, on living through that incident, felt that the violence of Gwangju had been reborn in the 21st century. Indeed, as she researched this novel for her answers to the two “riddles” she realised that human violence was universal: the massacre of native Americans by white colonisers; the genocide in Cambodia.

One specific fact resonated with Han during the course of her research:

“In Autumn 1979, when the democratic uprising in the southern cities of Busan and Masan was being suppressed, President Park Chung-hee’s chief bodyguard Chi Ji-cheol said to him: The Cambodian government’s just killed another 2 million of theirs. There’s nothing to stop us doing the same.” (p214)

At another point, the author poses us the following depressing question:

“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?” (p140)

Here, as in The Vegetarian, meat is used as a symbol of human violence. Certainly we are given plenty of passages where humans are reduced to no more that flesh and bodily functions: the graphic descriptions of the piled-up corpses of the victims of Gwangju, and of the conditions and brutal techniques applied in the police torture cells.

Boy is comingAs Han researched the themes of human violence and investigated more deeply the events that unfolded in Gwangju in May 1980 she began to feel unworthy of the task of answering the questions she had set herself. “I almost gave up. I lost faith in humankind,” she said to her audience at the Foyles book launch. But instead, eventually “I decided to give myself to the boy and the people who died.” Her project became a novel to remember Dong-ho, to call him back to life – and that explains the Korean title of the book, 소년이 온다: The Boy is Coming. It also explains why the first chapter is written in the second person: “I wanted to call [to] the boy, to have him to be present,” Han said at Foyles.

The violence of the events, and the reverberations of that violence through the succeeding years, make for tough reading, but it was even tougher to write: “I wrote three lines, and then I cried for an hour,” she told her audience at the Free Word Centre. “I became ill after finishing the novel.” But during the course of writing, “I clinged to the boy whenever I felt blocked. I felt he was dragging me back to [the answer of] the second riddle.” Just as the boy used to drag his mother to walk in the sunlight, where the flowers are blooming, rather than in the shadows (p201 & 222), he was pulling the author to focus on the more positive aspects of humanity.

If Han Kang forms the depressing conclusion that extreme violence is possible simply because it’s human nature, there is nevertheless the more encouraging message that there is also a side of our nature which can explain why we are also capable of acts of heroism, endurance and kindness. The people who stayed in the Provincial Government building that last night couldn’t adequately explain why he stayed to face certain defeat: “I’m not sure. It just seemed like something we had to do,” says one (p221-222). But elsewhere, in two extraordinary passages, Han seeks an answer in the psychology of crowds. Firstly, in the chapter entitled The Editor, which tells the experiences of Eun-sook, one of the women who looked after the corpses with Dong-ho and who years later ended up at a publishing company. Han quotes from a book that Eun-sook is editing:

“Certain crowds … display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty in achieving as individuals…  [T]hat nobility which is a fundamental human attribute is able to manifest itself through borrowing strength from the crowd.” (p100)

In a less detached passage in the chapter entitled The Prisoner, Han gives the viewpoint of one of the civilians who stayed in the Provincial Government building the night of the final army attack:

“It wasn’t as though we didn’t know how overwhelmingly the army outnumbered us. But the strange thing was, it didn’t matter. Ever since the uprising began, I’d felt something coursing through me, as overwhelming as any army… I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean… the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it… Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were re-threading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again… that feeling as if you yourself have undergone some kind of alchemy, been purified, made wholly virtuous.” (p120-122)

The above selected phrases occur over a two page passage and describe the crowd’s power to amplify morality in startlingly physical terms. If each one of us can be reduced to a “lump of meat” (p140) nevertheless the collective body, the blood of a hundred thousand hearts, can be inspirational.

Han Kang (centre) with Susie Orbach (right) and Deborah Smith (far right)

Han Kang (centre) with Susie Orbach (right) and Deborah Smith (far right) and signer and interpreter, at the Free Word Centre on 11 January (photo: LKL)

If the above discussion portrays Human Acts as a psychological treatise, nothing could be further from the truth. The narrative is deeply emotional, at times brutal. Susie Orbach, the psychotherapist and critic who discussed the novel with Han at the Free Word Centre confessed that she found the book “so gruelling I had to stop”, and described it as “heart-stoppingly difficult and moving”. Philippe Sands, who performed a similar role at the launch at Foyles said he was “utterly and totally gripped”. And from a personal perspective I found the impact just as great the second time I read it. I teared up at exactly the same point each time. The novelist interviews Dong-ho’s elder brother as part of her research. She feels she needs his permission to write the novel. “Permission?” he says. “Yes, you have my permission, but only if you do it properly. Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again.”

Anyone who was on the streets in Gwangju was suspect, thought of as a communist. The boy, at the moment of his death, is branded a “f*cking Red” by the soldier pulling the trigger of the M16 (p140) while a newspaper headline in Seoul at the time read “Gwangju in state of anarchy for fifth day”, belying the relative calmness of the civil society put in place by the ordinary citizens who were resisting the army. So in “calling the boy to be present”, Han is calling both him and the other witnesses to testify to the truth.

The novel ends as it begins with candles being lit for the dead: at the beginning, the boy is lighting candles to take away the stench of the corpses. On the final page, the author is lighting a candle as a tribute at the boy’s tomb. As Han Kang said of her work at the Foyles book launch: “It’s for the boy. He’s written the novel, not me.”

This post is informed by two read-throughs of the novel, and the discussions at two book launch events featuring the author and translator – first with Susie Orbach at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon on 11 January and then with Philippe Sands at Foyles on 13 January.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony February 17, 2016 at 7:49 am

Great review, Phillip – and I see you were lucky enough to see her in person too!

Philip Gowman February 17, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Thanks for your kind comment – which reminds me that I need to include a link to your own excellent review.

Having the two book launch events was obviously very helpful. And she was totally spellbinding, particularly at the Foyles event. She didn’t make much use of the interpreter either.

Facebook Feedback February 25, 2016 at 7:50 am
  • Sophie Bowman: I think this is one of my favourite write ups of the novel. Thanks for taking the time to write something so in-depth. It brought it all back.
    17 February at 06:09
  • John Armstrong: Count me in, this is a great review of Human Acts, the best I’ve seen to date. The ones that I’ve seen so far go the route of, Korea’s history in the 20th century (in case you are curious) is a complex and anguished one. This novel offers a moving account of one of the most tragic moments in this sad history, the 1980 Kwangju Uprising and its aftermath.

    But IMO this is to miss the whole point of the book. It is not about 1980, it is about now. It is an exhortation to South Koreans to remember that one of the worse acts of violence against them was perpetrated by their own government, and to recognize that, with the bringing back into power (in 2013) of a ruling party that is directly descended (literally, in bloodline) from the one that massacred its own people, it could happen again.

    I can see how the book can be read in a philosophical way, as asking the unanswerable question, why do humans torture and slaughter their own kind? But I don’t read it this way. I read it as a call to arms, a waving of the blood-soaked, dirt-stained Taegeukgi (which, for me, is the most enduring image in the novel), to brave whatever force the government brings to bear on them and to be ready to sacrifice themselves, as others have before, for what they know is right.

    But I wonder. I obviously see Human Acts as intensely timely and political. Is this an overreaching position? For those of you who have heard Han speak, how far do her own words match against what I am imagining she is saying?
    22 February at 06:15

    • Timothy Holm: Just a brief correction: Park Geun-hye’s father was not in power when the Gwangju Massacre occurred (he had already been assassinated before that). Not to excuse any of his other misdeeds, however…
      22 February at 08:55
    • Sophie Bowman: I think Han Kang is concerned first and foremost with human nature, and so in times like these that can become political, but I don’t think there is any kind of precise rallying cry or call to arms, it’s more of a meditation and perhaps a search for hope.
      22 February at 10:50
    • John Armstrong: I know that Park Chung-hee was assassinated (by an insider) in Oct 1979 and that Chun Doo-hwan seized control a month later. But I see the two regimes as two parts of a single one. As Han notes in the last chapter, writing as herself, “Chun Doo-hwan … had been so much in Park Chung-hee’s confidence that he was known as the former president’s adopted son.” (p. 215) If you think about it this amounts to saying that he was effectively Park Geun-hye’s brother.

      Given the timing of the book and the setting of the important last chapter specifically in 2013, I cannot help but think that it was the Dec 2012 election of Park Geun-hye that made Han decide that she must write the book. I don’t know if she has said so in so many words, but then, she lives in Korea and needs to exercise judgment in what she says and doesn’t say. For me in any case the book speaks for itself.
      22 February at 14:49

    • John Armstrong: Sophie Bowman, Human Acts is a quiet book – indeed silence is one of its themes – but it does not read like a meditation to me. Meditation is ultimately a fatalistic activity, and as I read it this book not fatalistic. Also, while it is certainly about evil, I is not really about good, at least not in any active sense. If anything the opposite of evil in the book is innocence. The heroes of the book are women and children. Even Jin-su, who comes the closet to being an activist of any of the main characters, is small and frail.

      If the book is about the battle between two things, it is the battle between destroying memory and preserving it. The army doesn’t just kill people, it hides the bodies. It doesn’t just put down the uprising, it terrorizes the survivors into total silence. But the people remember. All the characters who survive remember, the Kwangju people who circulate undergrown photo albums remember, and finally the author herself remembers, particularly in the last chapter which is about herself.

      Maybe call to arms is too strong a word. What she wants people to do first and foremost is to remember. Because remembering bad things that have happened is key to preventing bad things from happening again.
      22 February at 15:25

    • Sophie Bowman: I have read the book, and heard Han Kang speak about it on a number of occasions. I’m glad that it has made such a big impression on you. I think the book is about much more that simply memory and indeed on a number of occasions Kang has spoken about her fixation on violence (human capacity for violence, what it does to us etc.) in this book and others. Hopefully as more of her works become available in English over the coming years you will be able to get a fuller impression of Han Kangs ‘literary world’ if you will.
      22 February at 15:32
    • John Armstrong: You’re lucky to be able to hear her talk and to read works that are not yet available in English. By memory I don’t mean memory in the sense of Proust, I mean if more in the sense of the Holocaust (i.e. we must never forget).

      I could definitely tell as I read Human Acts that it was by the same author who wrote The vegetarian, but I still think they are very different books. Maybe when I read others of hers (and I look forward to doing so, she is a major writer and one I personally find very interesting) I will see more commonalities. But then again, there is no laws that says all the books by a given author must be the same.

      A question that comes up over and over again with certain kinds of books is, how far are they political and how far are they personal? Each side tends to think that the other side is being reductionist or simply missing the point. Often the “true” answer is that they are both right. For me this book is definitely political, but I can accept that for others that is not its primary aspect.
      22 February at 18:35

    • John Armstrong: I reread the Guardian interview after reading the book and acquired a frame of reference. Her comments point to childhood trauma and catharsis as primary shapers of the book. This fits with what Sophie Bowman has said. This doesn’t make it less political to me, but does make it more personal. Though the two works are very different, I see definite parallels between Human Acts in another major novel by a woman author that came out in translation recently (twenty years after its original publication in 1995), Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Girl who Wrote Loneliness (original title 외딴 방 The Lone Room). Shin’s book is more sophisticated and complex but Han’s is more viscerally compelling.
      23 February at 14:54
  • Philip Gowman: The closest I have heard her being openly anti-PGH is to talk with some passion about the textbook issue so the book is certainly timely. But she mentioned the Yongsan incident as being one specific trigger for the book – so it’s fair to say there is probably an element of a “call to arms” against authorities that use violence against their citizens.
    22 February at 08:10
  • Marlies Gabriele Prinzl: I’ve put it on my wishlist. Haven’t even read The Vegetarian yet (which is on my Kindle already).
    22 February at 13:29
Claire McAlpine February 29, 2016 at 10:01 pm

Thank you kindly for linking to my review, it was such a pleasure to come across yours, which most closely mirrored my own reaction to the book. You’ve shared many of the numerous quotes I highlighted throughout. Truly, it is a work of literary art.

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