by Han Kang
translated by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, 224 Pages
reviewed by William Morris
First published in South Korea in 2014, Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts is now available for the first time in the United States. American readers first encountered Kang in 2016, with the translation of her 2007 novel The Vegetarian. This strange, dark, poetic novel, about a woman who decides to stop eating meat after having a horrific nightmare, was met with great acclaim. Translated by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian went on to win the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. While Human Acts is a rich, powerful novel in its own right, and should be read independently of The Vegetarian, it is often interesting to situate a novel against the writer’s other work.
As The Vegetarian progresses, we learn that the central character, Yeong-hye, is not satisfied with simply avoiding meat. In fact, she’s decided she wants to become a plant, shedding her barbaric humanity for the gentler, more beautiful life of a tree. The strangest thing about The Vegetarian, however, is that none of the novel is told from Yeong-hye’s perspective. Instead, her husband, brother-in-law, and sister narrate the three parts of the book. These characters fit more predictably into their society, living quiet lives, eating meat, and maintaining cultural norms. This creates a feeling of voyeurism for the reader, who is constantly looking at Yeong-hye from a distance, as in the following passage:
More vivid and frightening than any other was the memory of the scream that had erupted from his sister-in-law when the lump of meat approached her lips. After spitting it out, she’d snatched up the fruit knife and glared fiercely at each of her family in turn, her terrified eyes rolling like those of a cornered animal.
Rather than her thoughts and feelings, we get the story through the filter of those who don’t understand her, who see her as selfish, freakish, and mentally unstable. With The Vegearian, Han Kang has given readers an outsider’s perspective on one woman’s act of rebellion against what she sees as a barbaric culture.
In her introduction to Human Acts, Deborah Smith describes the political turmoil of South Korea in 1980, around the time of the Gwangju Uprising. This specific moment becomes the backdrop for the second of Kang’s novels to be published in the United States. Readers unfamiliar with this piece of South Korean history should not be dissuaded from reading the novel. Smith quickly and efficiently describes how one authoritarian regime gave way to another, and how a student rebellion in the city of Gwangju swelled, then was struck down through martial law. The torture, death, and piling of bodies that followed the Uprising is where Human Acts begins.
If The Vegetarian gave an outside view of rebellion, Human Acts achieves the exact opposite. The characters are students and victims and those left to tell their stories. Through a small cast of voices, Kang describes the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising, and how its survivors manage to live in the following decades. In one chapter, readers meet a young man attending to the bodies of those killed by the military, waiting for families to claim their dead. In another, the spirit of one of the deceased describes the troublesome process of separating from his lifeless body:
If I could escape the sight of our bodies, that festering flesh now fused into a single mass, like the rotting carcass of some many-legged monster. If I could sleep, truly sleep, not this flickering haze of wakefulness. If I could plunge headlong down to the floor of my pitch-dark consciousness.
Han Kang’s novels are brief but cacophonous. What makes them so powerful is how Kang uses a host of voices to reveal the human qualities of seeking escape or solidarity in the face of atrocity. In Human Acts, some chapters are narrated in the second person, putting “you” directly in the action as you read. In other chapters, headings help to guide the reader through shifts in tense and tone, as characters recall the trauma and torture they’ve undergone. No matter the character, though, each voice is distinctly moving.
Human Acts is, among other things, a political novel. It is about authority and power, gender and expression, strength and helplessness. It is a novel about a particular moment in a particular nation’s history. But, like The Vegetarian, this novel is also deeply human, and as such, it is concerned also with what it means to be a person, no matter where you’re from or what you’ve been through. One character—a former prisoner of the state who was viciously assaulted—has been asked to recount his experiences for a professor writing about the Uprising. After recalling for the reader all the unbearable suffering he’s been through, he asks:
Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered—is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?
The tone of this passage, and of much of the novel, is of overwhelming negativity. Dark, disturbing, disgusting things happen throughout the book. And yet, there are tender moments—memories of a little girl in a classroom, a mother’s love for her son, the surprising connections we make in times of crisis. More than a condemnation of humanity, Han Kang’s Human Acts is a reminder that our lives overlap and intersect in unexpected ways, and that the burden of suffering belongs to no one person, but can be carried by us all.
William Morris is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His work has appeared in print and online, most recently at Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Fiction Southeast, and Red Earth Review. He divides his time between St. Louis and Salt Lake City, and is always reading. He also works as an editor at Natural Bridge. His other areas of interest include cats, coffee, and cryptozoology.