Human Acts by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith

Han Kang AuthorHuman Acts is the author Han Kang’s attempt to make some kind of peace with the knowledge and images of the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980.

Her family had left that city just one year before, she was 10 years old when the 10 day uprising occurred, but she became aware of it through the overheard, whispered conversations of her family and the silence that surrounded them speaking of the home where they used to live. She learned three young people from that household had lost their lives, one, a boy Dong-Ho probably shared the same room she had lived in for many more years than the short time he had.

What made the events sear into her mind and perhaps permanently affect her psyche, was the forbidden photo book that was given to her family, books circulated secretly to let survivors know what had really happened, a book her parents tried to hide, one she sought out, opening its covers to images she would forever be haunted by.

At night, though, when all the grown-ups were all sitting in the kitchen and I knew I’d be safe…I crept into the main room in search of that book. I scanned every spine until finally I got to the top shelf; I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.

Asked why she felt motivated to write this book – which begins with the immediate after-effects of the massacre, the very real logistical management of the bodies, the bereaved, mass memorial rituals and the burials and goes on to enter the after death consciousness of one the victims, seeing things from outside his body – she responded that the experience of seeing those images left her scared, afraid of human cruelty, struggling to embrace human beings.

It left her with the two internal questions below, they became her motivation to enter into the experience and try to write her way out of it, spurred on by the events surrounding the 1980 massacre in her birthplace of Gwangju and then the more recent social cleansing that took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009:

1. How can human beings be so violent?
2. How could people do something against extreme violence?

Human ActsHuman Acts, which seems to me to be an interesting play on words, is divided into six chapters (or Acts), each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and using a variety of narrative voices.

The opening chapter entitled The Boy, 1980 introduces us to Dong-Ho, but seen from outside himself, written in the second person singular narrative voice ‘You’. It is after the initial violence in the square and something has driven this boy, initially searching for the body of his friend who he witnessed being shot on the first day, to volunteer and help out, confronting him in a visceral way with so much more death and tragedy than he had escaped from on the day itself.

We meet the shadow of his friend in the second chapter, as he exits his body, but is unable to escape it, he tries to understand what is happening around him and observes his shattered body and others as they arrive, until something happens that will release him whereupon he senses the death of those close to him, his friend and his sister.

How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?

Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles at the edge of the candle flame?

In another chapter, we learn one of the volunteers from the first chapter is an editor, we meet her again five years later in a short, violent episode, that is revealed in the seven days of healing that follow. Devastatingly brilliant, it delves into the cost of censorship and the risk of being anywhere near it.

She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.

The following chapters skip years, but never the prolonged effect of what happened, the events never leave those scarred by them. The narrative works its way back to the origins of the uprising, to the factory girl, the hard-working, little educated group of young women trying to improve their lot, to obtain fair wages and equal rights. They become bolder when they meet in groups and speak of protesting, they educate themselves and each other and feel part of something, a movement and a feeling they wish to express publicly, with the naive assumption they won’t be arrested or killed.

It brings us back to humanity’s tendency to group, to find common interests, to progress as a team with common interests, to support each other and to the tendency of those in power to feel angry, threatened and violent towards those who have an equal ability to amass support, regardless of the merits of their cause.

Deborah Smith’s translation with all the narrative changes and structural vagaries works so well, it’s only the names and the occasional script that remind us that this was a work written in a language, so very different in its structure and ability than English, a challenge Smith was very much aware of, but overcame in this stunning result. I can only imagine how it must feel to read it in the original language.

Han Kang so immersed herself in these stories and events, that it is as if we are reading the experience of a holocaust survivor, a torture sufferer; we know only a little of what it must be like to live with the memory and the reluctance to want to share it, the heavy price that some pay when they do.

Despite the suffering and proximity to events, I was riveted by this novel all the way through, reading it slowly, endeavouring to expand my awareness to try to comprehend where the artist is taking us, to try to receive the answers too to those questions that have haunted her for so long.

I was constantly racking my brains.

Because I wanted to understand.

Somehow or other, I needed to make sense of what I’d experienced.

I remember Primo Levi’s book If This is A Man: The Truce, a memoir, and his words, which could easily have been a guide for Han Kang herself, in the way she has approached this incredibly moving, heart-shattering novel. It seems a fitting note on which to conclude this review, to recall his words and his intention in setting things down on paper.

052812_1909_IfThisisaMa1.jpgI believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Primo Levi


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Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher Portobello Books.


37 thoughts on “Human Acts by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith

  1. Claire, this is profound, and moving. I love your commentary. Perhaps, that is what inspires me to add all of these books to my TBR.

    The cover itself is haunting, isn’t it? And, all the passages that you have shared are riveting.

    I love the soul of your blogs, Claire, and I love the way you choose such extraordinary books. I am going to spend sometime this weekend, and find out more books from your blog. Many thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words Deepika and for reading my long review, I don’t usually write such long posts, but this novel and its remarkable translation deserves it, it is such an incredible work of literary art, a tribute to those who were so mercilessly killed. Thanks for your support, likewise I love reading your blog posts and your own deep, thoughtful responses to the books you read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Why Han Kang’s Human Acts is likely to be my book of the year | London Korean Links

    • Yes, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the experience of reading his work and so I went back to read my review and reading his quote was like a confirmation of that feeling. Although Han Kang doesn’t directly experience the events, there is no doubt she has been severely marked by them and to then to explore that and the wider distrust of humanity through fiction, a remarkable feat.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Likewise, thank you for linking mine to your page, your review was brilliant and you were so fortunate to have been at the talks, there is so much more to the reading experience that comes from being in the presence and hearing about the motivation from the author, I’m so grateful to Naomi for her in-depth notes that made me want to read the book.


  3. Terrific review, Claire – very thoughtful and considered. I too was reminded of Primo Levi as I was reading your commentary on Human Acts. A couple of years ago, our book group read The Periodic Table, and while it was at times an uncomfortable experience, it gave rise to a valuable discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui, it really did feel as if Han Kang had so immersed herself in this tragedy, and to deal with it in a respectful way, that she invoked something similar to the spirit of Primo Levi. I picked The Periodic Table up at a book sale a while go, I’ll be getting to that one eventually too.


  4. I also love Primo Levi, and his collected works have been recently republished in a handsome two volume set. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of the Gwangju massacre, and that South Korea’s move toward democracy is a recent development. I did a little “research” on the web to learn that Gwangju helped spark a broader and ultimately successful protest against authoritarianism in S. Korea. Does Hang Kang have any reflections on the political legacy of the massacre? I am also curious about how this brutal affair is remembered at the site itself. Is there a memorial at the site? Superb post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wanted to say, please add this to the list of recommendations I gave you, but I’d only just started reading it at the weekend.The book discussion talks sounded really interesting and are what got me to read the book, I see that she is invited to the Salon de Livre in Paris along with 30 South Korean authors this year, the French are way ahead of us in translating works from this part of the world.

      The last chapter of the book talks about her own experience, and also the introduction by the translator, which shares a little of the political context, including the reawakened fear that the election in 2013 of Park Chung-Hee’s daughter (he had ruled since a military coup in 1961 until his assassination in 1980 just before these events, then taken over by his protégé Chun Doo-hwan, an army general with firm ideas on population governance). The election of the daughter seems to have uncovered old wounds and was one of the catalysts for this book to be written.

      The massacre was officially memorialised in 1997.


  5. Wonderful review, Claire! And the book sounds like an important read for the sake of both history and humanity. It also make me want to bump Primo Levi’s books higher up my list. The purpose of writing Human Acts sounds similar to the reasons behind a book I recently read called But You Did Not Come back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, a memoir of the Holocaust and after.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve just packed up 7 boxes to donate to the English book sale and shall try not to buy more, as no room on the two shelves!! I know the problem, watch out for this one, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, it’s quite remarkable, very original and so courageous of the author to have tackled it, I think she suffered a lot from all the research and what it exposed her to. But the result is an amazing work of literature.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The whole enterprise sounds more intriguing, I will get my hands on this soon, it is a necessity now, I know that when I get hold of it it will be the next read, despite all the others vying for attention still.


  6. I’d already read a review of this book and had it on my ‘to read’ list, especially because my daughter is in South Korea for a year, teaching. Your thoughtful post has made it seem even more imperative to get hold of a copy.


    • I should think so Margaret, I wonder if your daughter has heard of it, I imagine so as I believe it was a controversial best-seller and award winning book in South Korea. There are two of her books that have been translated into English this year, I am expecting at least one of them to make the Man Booker International Prize long list announced next week.

      I was heartened to see that France has invited 30 writers from South Korea to the Salon de Livre in Paris this year including Han Kang, what a n amazing feat and so many authors in translation – albeit in French!


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