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.
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.
As 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.
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.
- Review in Tony’s Reading List
- Review in The Guardian
- Review in the FT. Also a mini-interview.
- Han Kang gives her translator Deborah Smith a nice credit in this Korean article
- Deborah Smith On Translating Human Acts by Han Kang, Asymptote
- Review in Word by Word
- Write-up of the Foyles launch event in The Writes of Woman