I read the final 60 pages of Human Acts at the circus. I’d accompanied my wife at a handstand class, and as I waited for it to be finished, all around me people were doing the most shocking things with their bodies. Squeezing their toes, tensing their feet, stretching their arms, faces reddening with effort, veins bulging, tops sliding down to reveal upside-down torsos, they swung on trapezes, stood on their heads, hung from each others’ feet and wrists, folded themselves in two.
Meanwhile, in the book I was reading, people were also doing shocking things with bodies. Bodies were slashed, broken, flayed, starved, tortured, slapped, stomped, sapped. Some bodies were killed, became corpses, left to rot. Ordinary people–students, factory workers, mothers–were brutalised by an oppressive state whose chief strategy was to remind these people that they were nothing but bodies, bodies that could be easily transformed into lifeless meat.
The novel examines the 1980 uprisings in Gwangju, South Korea, as well as their aftermath through the decades. After the first two chapters, both set in 1980, each chapter leaps forward by several years (to 1985, to 1990, to 2002, and so on) and focusses on the experiences of a different character whose life was in some way touched by the uprisings, as well as by a trio of children whose involvement in the uprisings we first read about in the first two chapters. Each of these characters is constantly reminded of the fragility of their bodies, the thinness of the thread that connects life and soul to body: most memorably, one of the chapters follows a disembodied soul, as it watches its own body slowly decay after death.
It should be obvious by now that Human Acts is often a bleak book. But, somehow, with a few exceptions, I did not find it harrowing.
For one thing, the book’s prose style is unlike anything else. In an interview, Han Kang’s translator, Deborah Smith, explains that Korean often draws elegance from ambiguity and repetition, while good English prose is often precise and concise. I suspect that much of the book’s magic derives from its balancing act between the two languages, which may also be responsible for the resulting richness of strange, beautiful imagery, such as “the dawn light being calved from the night slow as an iceberg”, candle flames like translucent bird wings, and the pale faces of factory workers like “mushrooms, which had never seen the sun.”
Also, defiance is a recurring theme. Many of the characters eventually decide to stand for what they believe in, not run and hide, even in the face of the brutal oppression that surrounds them, even having witnessed horrific acts with their own eyes. They decide to face the police, to go to protests, to stage censured plays. Sometimes, this gets them killed, but there is always someone to remember them and their stories, someone to light a candle at their graves.
Human Acts is brutal, lyrical, strange, hopeful, and hard to put down. I cannot wait until Han Kang’s next novel comes out in the UK.