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Han Kang, Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith) – TLS


In a recent article in the Independent, the South Korean novelist, Han Kang cited Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) as an important influence on her latest novel, Human Acts. Han’s book concerns the Gwangju uprising of 1980, during which the army massacred hundreds of workers and students protesting against martial law – a moment in the country’s history that the current government is reportedly trying to erase from school text books. Wondering how to write about this contested period, Han was struck by these words of Levi: “When I returned from my life as a POW…the many things I had experienced and seen with my own eyes were blazing inside me like fire. The dead felt closer to me than the living, and I felt a sense of guilt at being a human being.”

Human Acts begins with the dead, with lines of mutilated bodies laid out by Gwangju’s Provincial Office, waiting for family and friends to claim them. The army’s desecration of corpses (Han describes them dumped in piles and set ablaze), contrasts sharply with the citizens’ attempt to reinstate the dignity of their dead children, carefully wrapping their bodies in sheets and lighting candles around their heads. These expressive rituals foreshadow this novel’s argument about the need to counter brutality through art, literature and other forms of self-expression – even while acknowledging their inability to oust a government or raise the dead.

A boy arrives at the Provincial Office, searching for a friend who was shot down as they demonstrated together. Unable to find him, he joins two women struggling to identify bodies with intestines spilling out or faces blasted away. From this fearful beginning, full of pathos, the novel moves forward in time over thirty-three years, following the guilt-ridden survivors who struggle to achieve normal lives while still facing violence in the form of state torture, censorship and repression. But it is the dead who hold sway in Human Acts, rising up into the narrative with every new bruise or feared touch, with every fresh abuse of power. Despite the government’s efforts to wipe out any memory of them, they refuse to disappear. Like the novels of Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Han’s book testifies to a specific atrocity while raising universal questions about what it means to be human, with all the potential for tenderness and cruelty that this entails.

Deborah Smith and Han Kang, winners of the International Man Booker Prize, 2016.

Deborah Smith and Han Kang, winners of the International Man Booker Prize, 2016.

Discussing Han’s novel at the Free Word centre for international literature in London, the psychotherapist Susie Orbach told the author that she found her story difficult to read at times, likening it to A Little Life (2015), Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale about child abuse. But Han’s treatment of trauma, the restraint with which she presents horrific events, could hardly be more different from the American’s ramped-up melodrama. Writing with great formal control, Han switches easily from empathy and interiority to a more distanced, anthropological contemplation. As the Russian formalist critic, Viktor Shklovsky, noted, narratives eschewing the middle ground in this way, create estrangement, a sensation intensified in Human Acts by the characters’ profound alienation – the sight of so many slain and decomposing bodies meaning they will never again be at home in their own skin.

Among Han’s more impressive achievements is her ability to convey disintegration and alienation in work so elegantly wrought. Her aesthetic strategies – like the formal acts of the Gwangju mourners – suggest a profound humanism rather than any abstract design. This is why Human Acts has no single perspective and is full of ambiguity: its six chapters focus on different characters, each with a unique experience, and these are further personalised by the narrative voice which varies between the first, second and third person. One chapter conveys the scattered thoughts of a soul hovering around his dead body. Another is tightly structured by the six humiliating slaps an editor receives when she submits a manuscript that enrages the censor.

In an earlier novel, The Vegetarian (2015) – also translated with great sensitivity by Deborah Smith – Han emphasizes the value of art that flouts authority with a video scene in which anonymous performers, their bodies tattooed with flowers, rolled around in sexual ecstasy. In Human Acts, the same point is made by a play where actors remain dumb, mouthing the speeches forbidden by the censor. But these creative acts of defiance are rare. Further chapters tell of an activist tortured with a pen, repeatedly stabbed into one hand while the other is forced to write a confession; and of a semi-literate factory worker unable to give testimony about Gwangju because she cannot find words adequate to the task. Like the disembodied soul wondering where it can find a home (“If I could exist in dreams. Or perhaps in memories”) her living characters are also trapped in limbo. But if Han is supremely unillusioned about the forces that silence and isolate us, in Human Acts she has created a moving testament to fiction’s capacity to house even the most liminal and oppressed, to give voice to the voiceless, whether living or dead.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Closer than the Living‘, on 26.3.2016.

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