Human Acts by Han Kang

Reviewed by Luby Kiriakidi

Human Acts by Han Kang is a Korean novel translated into English by Deborah
Smith. The original Korean title, “The Boy Approaches” better illustrates the
novel’s focus on the main character, fifteen-year-old Dong-Ho, and how his
involvements in the Gwanju Uprising affected community members for years to
come. Using unique narrative devices, Kang crafts the perspectives of different
fictional characters before taking the reigns of the narration and telling her own
story.
In 1980, South Korean president Park Chung-hee was assassinated by men
of his own security team. Prospects for democracy were not fulfilled as another
authoritarian, General Chun Doo-Hwan, seized power. In Gwanju, a southern city
where Han Kang was born and raised, masses of students protested the installation
of a new dictator, and were joined by those whose human rights were violated
with the rapid industrialization of South Korea. In reaction, troops were sent
in that assaulted both students and unarmed bystanders, which only fueled the
movement. The Gwanju Uprising began on May 18, 1980, and lasted for ten days.
The whole community comes together in the initial pages of the novel to
join forces and drive the troops from the city. Long lines form in the hospitals
to give blood to the injured. Civilians run the Provincial Office, caring for dead
bodies and allowing bereaved loved ones to identify them. Although this novel is
called Human Acts, it is not the acts, but the resulting bodies, and the question
of their retained humanity, that haunt the reader. When Dong Ho enters the
Provincial Office, he notices that, “At first, the bodies had been housed not in the
gymnasium, but in the corridor of the complaints department” (13). While an
image of motionless bodies apparently filing complaints can seem comedic at a
distance, any morsel of humor slips away as the bodies overflow the morgue, then
the complaints department, the gymnasium, and eventually the grounds of the
Provincial Office. As he searches for the body of his best friend who may or may
not still be alive, Dong-Ho meets caring civilians such as Seon-ju, Eun-sook, and
Jin-su, whose own stories are woven throughout the chapters as the years pass.
Dong-Ho chooses to stay and help in the gymnasium of the Office, ignoring his
mother’s pleas for him to come home. The mundane acts of a middle schooler
caring for the reeking bodies presents the reader with a vastness of cruelty and
kindness mashed together in one scene. The uprising, however, eventually ends
in failure, because the soldiers return to the city. Their return looms over the first
chapter of the book brings, as we learn in the second chapter, the death of our dear
Dong-Ho.
When Han Kang interviewed Dong-Ho’s older brother, he said, “Please write
your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memoryagain,” (210). The author’s choice to write Dong-Ho’s perspective in second-
person narration is curious. Initially, this causes ambiguity in gender, age, and the relationship of Dong Ho to his missing friend. The actions, situation, and observations are much more mature and serious than those of a usual fifteen-
year-old boy. I started to attribute the ambiguity to a stiff translation from the Korean. Once it became clear that the book centers around Dong-Ho and his
death, however, it brings the story even closer to the reader. The dead bodies
that he helps care for come to life on the page not only because of
minute details like combing their hair into place, smelling the odors
of decay and the candles that combat the stench, and examining
their wounds, but, because of the second-person narration, you are in Dong-Ho’s
shoes, performing these actions. You question where the soul goes after death, or
how long it clings to the body. You are wondering whether your friend is still alive,
and when the perspective shifts, the reader learns from a dead messenger that you
have already died.
The shift to first-person narration in Chapter Two is masterful, as Dong Ho’s
dead friend addresses you, the reader, or, rather, you/Dong-Ho. To answer the
reader’s question about how the soul stays with the body, he says, “I hovered
around my cheeks, the nape of my neck, clinging to these contours so as not to
be parted from my body” (50). There is no explanation on how his consciousness
remains intact, but his perception of the world is filled with fear of the unknown.
The effect of an intact, unanchored consciousness is ethereal and terrifying. There
is little grounding for this soul; it barely hangs on to the pile of mutilated bodies.
One of the horrors of the uprising was the treatments of bodies, discarded in
hidden masses so that many were left unidentified and the bereaved could not find a tower of others, was shameful, detestable” (57). Through this beautifully tragic
and poetic narration of a loss of physical identity, the reader begins to question the
state of humanity.
While the uprising only lasted 10 days, the trauma resurfaces in years to come
as shown with the chapters entitled “The Editor,” “The Prisoner,” “The Factory
Girl,” “The Boy’s Mother,” and the epilogue “The Writer”. Each of these chapters
is set in a different year, and they present censorship to overcome, seven slaps to
forget, the suicide of a friend to face, and a story to remember and record. The
obsession of the boy’s mother and her lack of closure is a mirror image of the
writer’s personal pain and struggle with this story, with a clear split from fictional
to actual memories. She was nine years old during the Gwanju Uprising, and her
attention to the mistreatment of bodies is mesmerizing.
Rather than finding an ending to this book, and closure to the traumatic
incident, Kang creates a cycle of reliving the event. When Dong-Ho leads an old
man looking for the body of his daughter in the gymnasium, he wonders, “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 the edges of the candle flame” (49)? This
image is mirrored on the final pages when the author recounts first seeing the
grave of Dong-Ho, “I stared, mute, at that flame’s wavering outline, fluttering like
a bird’s translucent wing” (224).
The fluttering of the dead is the aftermath of human acts in Human Acts.
Its delicacy shows the spectrum of monstrosity and kindness on which humanity
lies. The cycle of trauma and pain creates a desire to read and reread this book
because although the subject is not pleasant, you need to linger in the story to
attempt to understand how so much beauty and so much cruelty can dwell in one
place. Kang re-lived the pain when Park Chung-Hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye
became President in 2013. Yet, very recently, on March 10, 2017, Geun-hye was
impeached by the National Assembly, reaffirming the relevance and poignancy of
Human Acts in today’s world.
It is not easy for Kang to write this story, but the urgency to commemorate
the death of a young boy and reveal decades old injustices is too strong for her to
remain silent. In the same vein, the reader feverishly takes in the pages, despite the
difficult topic and imagery. Whether it is to rub away the initial confusion of the
second person point of view, or retrace the connections of the characters to each
other, or simply to re-live the poetic yet traumatic moments as you, this story is
worth cyclical rumination.

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