My rating: 3 stars
Suffering is a constant feeling in Human Acts by Han Kang. It is a book about how an uprising in South Korea and the actions of an authoritarian government affected the lives of various people throughout the years. Told from several points of view, it could have been more impactful had it focused on fewer perspectives and intertwined them more closely.
At the beginning of the book, the municipal gymnasium in Gwangju is being used to keep the bodies of the civilians who were killed by the South Korean army during the popular uprising of 1980. The narrator of the first chapter indirectly addresses a character who is looking for his friend’s corpse and, not having been successful in finding it, ends up staying at the gymnasium to help. He was with his friend during the uprising but fled when the army started shooting.
Each chapter has a distinct narrator. The second chapter is told in the first person by the soul of Jeong-dae, who was killed during the uprising. His body and those of many victims were thrown into a pile. He wants to know who killed him and his sister. Five years later, Kim Eun-Sook, an editor at a publishing house, is slapped seven times by a police detective who wants to know the whereabouts of a translator. Through a third-person narration, we learn how she was also affected by the uprising. The first-person narrator of the following chapter is a man who was a prisoner. He was one of the students who was part of the uprising and, in 1990, is recalling what he remembers from that time to a professor.
As the book is told from different perspectives, it means that not all of them are equally engaging. The chapters that feature second-person narrators become exasperating after a while. This happens not only in the first chapter, but also later on when a narrator addresses Lim Seon-Ju, whom an academic wanted to talk to. Having a narrator speaking to a “you” can be helpful to make readers feel actively part of the story. In Human Acts, however, that doesn’t happen, because it is about a too specific incident and many times we know whom the narrator is exactly talking to. Actually, it hinders the immersion in the story and makes it difficult to establish a connection between the readers and the characters.
The chapters narrated in the first person end up being more engaging. The point of view of Dong-ho’s mother, which is a mix of first and second-person narration, is effective and emotional. But the most moving of all is the one told from the soul’s perspective. The anger and resentment are felt in every word.
“I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as the blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.”
Although the book is too fragmented and it would have benefited greatly from a more closely interwoven group of characters, there are moments that cut deep, as the brutality of the military is painstakingly described and not brushed over. The amount of suffering that some of the characters went through is shocking.
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, Human Acts is not as impactful as the splendid The Vegetarian, but it also features moments that showcase Han Kang’s talent.