In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed. Read more...
In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed. The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho's best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho's own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice. An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-07-04
- Reviewer: Staff
After winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, Han has written a harrowing second novel that traces the long-term reverberations from South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which government troops killed anywhere between 200 and 2,000 civilians in the chaos following the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. The story opens in that fateful year with Dong-ho, a 15-year-old boy searching for his friend Jeong-Dae while tending to the bodies of protestors in the municipal gymnasium, helping family members identify and claim them. But Dong-ho is soon another casualty in the violence, and the novel, structured in linked stories, traverses the subsequent years to document the aftermath of Dong-ho’s death. The story is told in a combination of first-, second-, and third-person narration by those who knew Dong-ho, and it includes Jeong-Dae’s life after death, a book editor’s fight against censorship, a prisoner’s recollection of his captivity and torture, a former factory worker whose memories of the violence are brought up when an author needs her as a “witness,” and Dong-ho’s mother, remembering her son 30 years after his death. In the final chapter, Han herself reveals her connection to Dong-ho. Han’s novel is an attempt to verbalize something unspeakable, and her characters often find themselves adrift decades after the event. But she humanizes the terrible violence by focusing on the more mundane aspects: tending and transporting bodies, or attempting to work an ordinary job years later. And by placing the reader in the wake of Dong-ho’s memory, preserved by his family and friends, Han has given a voice to those who were lost in the Gwangju Uprising. (Jan.)
After an uprising
In December 1979, shortly after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, army general Chun Doo-hwan assumed the role of South Korean leader. His expansion of martial law and crackdown on political activities led to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, an anti-authoritarian movement that began with student demonstrations and ended with the killing by government troops of hundreds of citizens, many of them in their teens.
Han Kang, author of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, revisits the uprising’s toll on her native South Korea in Human Acts, a harrowing and stylistically daring series of linked stories.
Kang shifts perspectives and narrative styles throughout the book. The central figure who connects the stories is Dong-ho, a 15-year-old in his third year of middle school who, during the uprising, searches for Jeong-dae, his best friend, whom he believes has been killed. But, in the process of looking for his friend, Dong-ho becomes one of the casualties.
The other stories, set from 1980 through 2013, are told from the point of view of characters who were part of the uprising, including an editor contending with state censorship, an ex-prisoner who was the militia chief in the students’ plan to hold the university’s Provincial Office, a former factory employee traumatized for 20 years by the torture she suffered, Dong-ho’s mother and, in an audacious authorial move, Jeong-dae’s corpse. The epilogue focuses on Kang herself, who recalls hearing adults speak of a murdered 15-year-old when she was 9 and now wants to learn all she can about his fate.
Although Human Acts depicts violence in graphic detail, anyone who reads this work will be moved not only by Kang’s poetic telling of horrific events but also by her nuanced treatment of the material. As the ex-prisoner asks, “Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species?” This novel is a thoughtful and humane answer to difficult questions and a moving tribute to victims of the atrocity.