Book Review: Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’

Han Kang’s novel ‘Human Acts’ details just that: the experiences of a range of individuals suffering from the actions humans inflict on each other. The narrative flows through different times and places, centred around one boy, Dong-ho. 

The first UK edition cover of ‘Human Acts’. (Credit: Portobello Books Ltd, via Amazon.)

Dong-ho is revealed to be based on a real child who the author was distantly connected to and one of many massacred in 1980 in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. 

At the end of 1979, South Korea’s military strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated. Having been in power since his coup in 1961, he had increased repressive measures to create a de facto dictatorship, declaring martial law in response to demonstrations throughout the country’s south. 

His assassination saw Park’s protégé Chun Doo-hwan gain power. Chun was nicknamed his adoptive son, and his measures reflected their surrogate familial connection. By May, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country, and had introduced a range of restrictive measures, banning political activities, limiting freedom of the press, and closing universities.

In response, student demonstrations sprung up in Gwangju on May 18. The government reacted to the students from Jeonnam University by shooting and beating them. Outrage saw the protests spread as citizens took to the street in solidarity, opposing the lack of democracy and protesting the harsh conditions workers endured during South Korea’s rapid industrialisation. Paratroopers were sent in against civilians, schoolchildren were shot as they tried to surrender, people were beaten, raped, and tortured by government troops, with the fighting in the city finishing on 27 May.

Official figures, which remain unchanged, suggest around 200 died, whereas some foreign press reports estimated 2,000. The death toll is hard to fully ascertain – many bodies were thrown in unmarked graves, Chun worked to suppress discussion of the Uprising, and the brutalities resulted in suicides which cannot be directly attributed. 

Only foreign press were allowed to cover the uprising and Chun Doo-hwan blamed the rebellion on Communists sent from North Korea. With authorities trying to suppress memories of the event, it was only in 1997 a day of commemoration was created. The Uprising has yet to be confined to history; as with Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” in World War Two and Chun Doo-hwan’s Samchung re-education camp, the event remains raw. Regional hostilities against people from South Jeolla, Gwangju’s province, created by the dictatorship to minimise the protests continue and the Uprising is still contested by certain right-wing groups. 

A May 18th memorial in Gwangju, South Korea. (Credit: The May 18 Memorial Foundation)

Kang’s book is an attempt to grapple with this history, offering an attempt to reconcile the cruelty shown to people by their own nation. Kang was born in Gwangju, moving to Seoul aged 10, and the final chapter of the book presents her own experience with the Uprising – seeing her parents trying to hide it from the children, opening a book of photos showing a woman shot in the face – and the need to tell the story of the voices left. The focus on scenes outside the traditional dramatic scenes of tanks arriving allows the novel to act almost as a range of historical sources, guiding you through the effects of history.

The novel was published in South Korea in 2014, the year after Park Chung-hee’s daughter’s presidential inauguration. Park Geun-hye’s ascent to the highest office of Korea motivated Kang to write a book discussing part of Korea’s traumatic past which is rarely spotlighted. It is hard for a country to admit to shooting its civilians – think of Kent State, where in 1970 the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kang’s questioning of why Gwangju residents sang the national anthem as corpses were wrapped in the Taegukgi (the national flag) demonstrates how such wounds can fester, changing a person’s identity. The narration of a corpse reminds how people’s suffering cannot stay in the grave, especially when not given a proper burial.

The book’s strength is in its ability to offer a range of perspectives from the event. Historical literature’s merit is often limited by a narrow focus, single scope, and distorting historical facts. Through Kang’s use of the Korean literary tradition of a linked narrative, the reader is connected to Dong-ho throughout the novel but can see the effect of the Uprising from a multiplicity of perspectives. Giving the narrative to the unionised women who drove the pro-democracy movement, the survivors, and even a corpse, creates a novel which can educate about the event and how people experienced it. The detached tone adopted in all Kang’s work allows for a lack of sensationalisation or didacticism as literal torture is presented to the reader. 

The novel reminds us that history remains in our present politics and all spheres of life. Novels and other works of literature offer an opportunity to act as a historical source, presenting people’s responses to events, and as a way to expose ourselves to areas of history unknown. Human Acts forms part of history and has continuing political significance.

Ellie Williams-Brown

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