Review: Han Kang’s “Human Acts”

A woman’s body and its ill treatment are central to Han Kang’s Booker Man International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian (2007, English translation, 2015). The violence in the novel left many readers in a state of shock, or—as one critic wrote—you’ll read the novel “with your hand over your mouth.”  Whatever Kang’s intent, her writing is not for the squeamish. Be prepared to feel as if you—like her characters—have been brutalized; yet also stirred by the beauty of an incredible poetic imagination. To me, Kang’s novels prompt us to ask what great literature expects of us: think and not forget. What’s the point of reading a book, if the moment you turn the final page you forget about it? Rage, rage against the dying of the night and anything else that upsets you.

The human acts in Han Kang’s new novel of the same title are not so human at all—but violent expressions of a repressive state determined to eliminate all descent. It is, of course, human beings who enact these events. If The Vegetarian focused on the interactions within an autocratic Korean family, Human Acts moves into the political arena. The Korea that inspires us today is not the brutal beast it was for much of its earlier years after the end of the country’s war. Authoritarian political dictatorship, martial law, and repression were constants, the worst of these lasting until, approximately, 1979. The Gwangju Uprising in the south of the country the following year brought things to a head and, eventually, led to the more stable South Korea we recognize today (in spite of very recent political events). When thousands of citizens protested for democracy, they were beaten, shot, and killed. The total number of the deceased varies dramatically (from slightly more than a hundred to a couple of thousand) depending on official and unofficial accounts. Born and raised in Gwangju, Han Kang was roughly ten years old when the protests began.

The center of Kang’s story focuses on the death of a fifteen-year-old middle-school boy, named Dong-go, during the uprisings. This event is circled around and returned to, beginning with the initial chapter, “The Boy, 1980.” We humanactsobserve his brief life from the perspective of his family, especially his older sister and his mother, but also his friends. The narrative depicts horrific events (soldiers defacing bodies, bodies stacked into towers, civilians being shot while trying to avert the violence by singing the national anthem). Five years later, a writer tries to report on the uprising but official censorship of the massacre has long taken over. Years later, prisoners in cells are tortured; labor unions are controlled well after the incident because of it. It’s not until the twenty-first century that tensions are completely relaxed.

In a chapter titled “The Factory Girl, 2002,” we observe the ruined life of a young woman (now forty-two years old) who was also victim of the horror. She survived, but her personality was totally subdued. First, second, and third-person narration overlaps throughout much of the story. There is no more disturbing paragraph in Human Acts than this one: “Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a foot-long wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus? To a rifle butt bludgeoning my cervix? To the fact that, when the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I had gone into shock, they had to take me to the hospital for a blood transfusion? Is it possible to face up to my continuing to bleed for the next two years, to a blood clot forming in my Fallopian tubes and leaving me permanently unable to bear children? Is it possible to bear witness to the fact that I ended up with a pathological aversion to physical contact, particularly with men? To the fact that someone’s lips merely grazing mine, their hand brushing my cheek, even so much as a casual gaze running up my legs late in summer, was like being seared with a branding iron? Is it possible to bear witness to the fact that I ended up despising my own body, the very physical stuff of my self? That I willfully destroyed any warmth, any affection whose intensity was more than I could bear, and ran away? To somewhere colder, somewhere safer. Purely to stay alive?”

That is an observation made years after the demonstrations, involving large numbers of students and subsequently their mothers, factory workers and trade union members. Besides shooting many of them, the army used flamethrowers to burn others. The year before, during an earlier period of unrest, President Park Chung-hee’s chief bodyguard had observed, “The Cambodian government killed another 2 million of theirs. There’s nothing stopping us from doing the same.” It’s a miracle that Korea was able to move beyond such terrible times. But perhaps that offers hopes for other troubled spots. Obviously, it’s impossible to read Human Acts without thinking of current happenings in the world, whether they are in Syria or with the newly-empowered Republicans in the government, determined to take control of women’s bodies. Han Kang’s novel brings into the daylight the unending repressive power of men and the objects of their hatred: mostly women and children. But, also, students and union members.

Does this all sound too familiar?

Deborah Smith’s translation is exquisite.

Han Kang: Human Acts
Trans. by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, 218 pp., $22

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.