Last January, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was published in English garnering critical acclaim from the broadsheet press and bloggers alike, including this one: I included it in my Books of 2015 list. The tale of a woman who became a vegetarian despite cultural stigma leading to the breakdown of her marriage and family relations before the deterioration of her mental and physical self, it’s an unusual book and one which images from linger long after reading.
On the surface Human Acts appears to be more straightforward. It’s the story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. It begins with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium. He’s listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify. After the service, he returns inside to continue helping those who arrive looking for missing friends and relatives. Kang makes this section all the more effective by narrating it in second person:
When you first saw her, she was still recognisably a smallish woman in her late teens or early twenties; now, her decomposing body has bloated to the size of a grown man. Every time you pull back the cloth for someone who has come to find a daughter or younger sister, the sheer rate of decomposition stuns you. Stab wounds slash down from her forehead to her left eye, her cheekbone to her jaw, her left breast to her armpit, gaping gashes where the raw flesh shows through. The right side of her skull has completely caved in, seemingly the work of a club, and the meat of her brain is visible.
We soon learn that Dong-Ho initially came to the gym to search for his own friend but ended up becoming part of the team on realising how chronically understaffed they were. By this point, all the morgues were full so the dead were being brought straight to the gym.
The second section moves to the voice of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae:
Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.
The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body then.
His soul starts to leave his body as it begins to rot, eventually leaving it altogether when soldiers return and set fire to the pile of corpses. It’s a section that sounds like it shouldn’t work but it’s deeply affecting. Kang contrasts Jeong-dae’s descriptions of the pile of bodies and its surroundings with memories of his sister whom he also knows is dead.
The novel progresses through sections told by an editor in 1985, a prisoner in 1990, a factory girl in 2002, Dong-Ho’s mother in 2010 and ‘the writer’ in 2013. Through them the events of the uprising and its brutal suppression are shown. Dong-Ho’s personal story is central to Kang’s narrative; as it unravels, some shocking betrayals are revealed. What also connects these strands is the violence of the state. The editor, who is Kim Eun-sook, the woman who convinced Dong-ho to stay and help in the municipal gymnasium, tells her part of the story through the seven slaps she was given by an interrogator. Kang subjects the reader to this violence suddenly. It’s repeatedly shocking, not only due to the brutality of it but also because of the way in which it’s juxtaposed with calmer passages.
It’s difficult to comment on a translation when you don’t speak the original language but what’s clear is that Smith has made each voice consistently distinct, a challenging task for any writer without the addition of faithfully translating another’s words. The prose is sharp, brutal and affecting.
What Human Acts has in common with The Vegetarian is a similarity in structure, a story told from multiple points of view, and Kang’s offbeat way of viewing the world: she comes at this story from unusual perspectives and it’s all the better for it. Human Acts is a triumph.
If you’re in London next week, Han Kang is making two appearances. The first is at the Free Word Centre on Monday 11th where she’ll be interviewed by Susie Orbach. The second is at Foyles Charing Cross Road where she’ll be interviewed by Philippe Sands. If you can’t make either, I’ll be at the latter and will be blogging about the event afterwards.
Thanks to Deborah Smith for the review copy.