Human Acts, by Han Kang

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Five stars, read in April 2017.

I kept not returning this book to the library because I wanted to go back through and get quotes for this post, but when I tried to do it, I felt like it was too late. This book is much too intense an experience to just dip back in and pull out lone sentences to share. It’s one I’m still thinking about two months later.

I started looking for it a full year ago, right after I finished (and fell in love with) The Vegetarian. Han Kang is the kind of writer I feel a deep connection with—one who doesn’t pretend the world is better than it is—and I might be her perfect audience. Even the title of Human Acts is a scathing criticism, as I see it: the perfect slap in the face to the frustratingly unquestioned idea of humanity as something inherently noble. I’ve never forgotten a line from Wicked, by Gregory Maguire: “I never use the words humanist or humanitarian, as it seems to me that to be human is to be capable of the most heinous crimes in nature.” The events in this book, based on the Gwangju massacre in 1980, couldn’t be more perfect examples.

Each chapter comes from the perspective of a different character, starting with Dong-ho, the boy whose death is the thread connecting all the stories. He’s still alive at the end of his chapter, and as the book progresses, each character fills in another piece until we find out how it happened—but the revelations feel almost incidental, too, because each story is utterly compelling and traumatic in itself, and you don’t always know at first how a character is connected to him. I actually forgot that the book is about Dong-ho, and was just so engaged in every character’s story that it was almost a surprise when I remembered what it was all building toward.

This book is brutally violent, full of torture and unspeakable cruelty. It’s a painful experience that forces some deep questions about human nature.

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. The world darkens, like electric bulbs going out one by one . . .

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? To be deranged, damaged, slaughtered—is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?

This passage is rhetorical, spoken by a character whose story is one of the most traumatic in the book. And yet to me, the question seems to have a clear answer. Not that I know what Kang herself intended, because in this (excellent) interview with The Guardian, she seems to have veered toward my level of disillusionment then corrected back in the direction of belief in human dignity. All I know is that animals are capable of most of the same traits we consider noble in humansempathy, grief, altruism. But they aren’t deliberately cruel. Animals don’t torture; these are human behaviors. The injustices of the world, the oppression and genocide, the rape and murder and dehumanization, the hierarchies and segregation, the unspeakable massacre represented in this book—these are all human acts. 

As before, Kang’s writing and Deborah Smith’s translation are sharp and beautiful. I still think about both books often, and I cannot wait for another to be published.

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