After the upheaval of the Korean civil war, democracy eluded South Koreans due to decades of authoritarian military dictatorships. In Han Kang’s absorbing new novel, “Human Acts,” set during and after the student-led Gwangju uprising in May 1980, Han uses her talents as a storyteller of subtlety and power to bring this struggle out of the middle distance of “history” and into the intimate space of the irreplaceable human individual.
The novel follows six characters whose lives are upended by the uprising and the subsequent crackdown and persecution. It moves forward in time, in related vignettes, and is divided into sections titled “The Boy, 1980,” “The Boy’s Friend, 1980,” “The Editor, 1985,” “The Prisoner, 1990,” “The Factory Girl, 2002,” The Boy’s Mother, 2010” and ends with an epilogue, “The Writer, 2013.”
The first section is written in second person and focuses on the emergency management of decaying bodies waiting to be identified and claimed. Han often shifts from simple narration of exchanges between people into more stylized descriptions of the disembodied movements of things, “This morning, when you asked how many dead were being transferred from the Red Cross hospital today, Jin-su’s reply was no more elaborate than it needed to be: thirty. While the leaden mass of the anthem’s refrain rises and falls, rises and falls, thirty coffins will be lifted down from the truck, one by one.”
While the characters — those who survive — are aggrieved, haunted, even possessed, Han’s style emphasizes the living body’s will to survive, how its involuntary processes (sweat, pain, blood, breath) demand that it not be ignored. The body as an animal with a force of its own separate from the human personality is a theme that echoes that of Han’s previous novel, “The Vegetarian,” which won the Man Booker International Prize.
Strikingly influenced by Korea’s indigenous animist heritage, the world in which Han’s characters live bristles with life, even while their government is ruled by the impersonal logic of obedience or death. In the “Factory Girl” section, Miss Lim has just been questioned by a co-worker about her past. Han then pulls us away from the tense interchange, “The moisture-laden wind is billowing in through the dark window. It strikes you as uncannily like a long inhalation. As though the night is itself some enormous organism, opening its mouth and exhaling a clammy breath. Then breathing back in, the stuffy air trapped inside the office being sucked into black lungs.”
In this suspenseful, portrait-based novel about the outer and inner lives of ordinary citizens, the title reminds us that there are almost no limits to what can occur under the rubric of “human acts.”
Sun Yung Shin is a writer and poet in Minneapolis.
By: Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
Publisher: Hogarth, 218 pages, $22.