Han is smart to focus not on the gruesomeness of Dong-ho’s work — which would be redundant, melodramatic and expected — but on its mundanity ... In essence, we witness the impossibly large spectrum of humanity, and wonder how it is that one end could be so different from the other. To explore that spectrum, the book’s polyphonic structure comes across as necessary and natural. Each chapter offers a piercing psychological portrait of a character affected by the Gwangju massacre ... shows Han’s imaginative and meaningful obsession with violence upon the body. It also reveals another, perhaps more fundamental, obsession: dissonance. Each chapter explores what happens when two seemingly dissimilar or even opposing elements try to coexist: when innocence is surrounded by violence, when the dead keep on living, when survivors live like the dead, when freed prisoners still feel imprisoned and when the past becomes the present ... It is Han’s graceful ballet along this fine line, artfully replicated in Deborah Smith’s translation, that makes this harrowing book about the Gwangju massacre compulsively readable, universally relevant and deeply resonant ... Human Acts is, in equal parts, beautiful and urgent. Though it might not have been Han’s intention, her novel reads not only as a lyrical post-mortem on violence but also a call to counter that violence.
This is a book that could easily founder under the weight of its subject matter. Neither inviting nor shying away from modern-day parallels, Han neatly unpacks the social and political catalysts behind the massacre and maps its lengthy, toxic fallout. But what is remarkable is how she accomplishes this while still making it a novel of blood and bone ... By choosing the novel as her form, then allowing it to do what it does best – take readers to the very centre of a life that is not their own – Han prepares us for one of the most important questions of our times: 'What is humanity? What do we have to do to keep humanity as one thing and not another?' She never answers, but this act of unflinching witness seems as good a place to start as any.
Owing to Deborah Smith’s skillful and painstaking translation, each story is presented in an inventive way ... But where Kang excels is in her unflinching, unsentimental descriptions of death. I am hard pressed to think of another novel that deals so vividly and convincingly with the stages of physical decay. Kang’s prose does not make for easy reading, but there is something admirable about this clear-eyed rendering of the end of life.
...torturously compelling, a relentless portrait of death and agony that never lets you look away. Han’s prose — as translated by Deborah Smith — is both spare and dreamy, full of haunting images and echoing language. She mesmerizes, drawing you into the horrors of Gwangju; questioning humanity, implicating everyone ... Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts interrogates the relationship between body and soul, trying to find where, exactly, humanity resides in our animal forms. Han’s writing is literally visceral, luxuriating in the gleaming nastiness of the body ... Yet Human Acts isn’t devoid of warmth, even if almost all of its moving moments grow out of deep suffering ... Han makes extensive use of the second person — more than a third of the book is written in this mode. This is a bold choice, and it doesn’t always pay off, but the overall impact is unnerving and painfully immediate.
Like Kang’s widely acclaimed novel The Vegetarian, the first of her works to be translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, Human Acts is ruthless in its refusal to look away from atrocity. Both slim, polyphonic novels stare down violence and vulnerability, cruelty and confusion ... Composed of astonishing images and visceral detail, Human Acts forces readers into achingly close contact not just with this instance of violence, but also the violence inherent to the human condition ... And yet the emotional intensity of Human Acts does not arise from its devastating depictions of violence alone. The novel also wrenches the heart with its surprising tenderness, its intimacy in the face of cruelty, and its insistence that beneath the darkest aspects of humanity, there is also a vein of inviolable love.
With clarity and compassion, Kang enters the voices of Dong-Ho’s best friend, his haunted mother, the editor of a book of plays so decimated by the censors they’re performed in silence, and the surviving rebels of the uprising. As in The Vegetarian, Kang has a command of visceral detail that she uses to hypnotic effect. Though her subject matter is terrifying, her prose is too beautiful, her images too perfectly crystallized to wince and turn away from them ... Human Acts is a slim novel weighted with philosophical and spiritual inquiry, but it offers no consolations. Rather, it grapples with who we are, what we are able to endure, and what we inflict upon other people 'with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.'”
Because the reasons for the bodily renunciation in The Vegetarian were enigmatic, the novel had the dark energy of a fairy tale. But there’s no mystery in Human Acts. Here the source of the violence is obvious, and the brutalities are desensitizingly repetitive. There is justice in Ms. Han’s emphasis on dead and mutilated bodies, but there’s very little art. A corpse is an important fact; the life it once contained is the deeper story.
[Han] refracts the Gwangju Uprising through her own particular lens: her fixation on the body itself, and its connection to the soul; human tolerance for unspeakable acts; and the tearing of social fabric both by violence and by a refusal to accede to it ... Human Acts, like The Vegetarian, isn’t a book about forsaking or repairing violence; it’s about the inescapability and deathlessness of violence in humanity. Every effort to paper over the horrors of what these protesters suffered, at the hands of their own nation’s soldiers, whether through time or literary censorship or personal forgetting, fails. The violence of the past rises up again; it was never really past ... A visceral, searing excavation of emotional and physical trauma that is rooted in just a few days, but spans decades.
Human Acts is unique in the intensity and scale of this brutality. Picking the scab of the Gwangju massacre, the novel details a bloody history that was deliberately forgotten and is only now being recovered ...imagines the Gwangju uprising from seven vantage points, stretching chronologically from 1980 to 2013 ...each chapter centers on a different character; their shared connection is Dong-ho, a middle-school boy unwittingly thrown into the pandemonium of his hometown ...is a fulfillment of this command. It appears in translation nearly 40 years after the Gwangju massacre and during another episode of state oppression and citizen outrage.
The blood and guts are gruesome, but their graphic power is soon numbed. I found the tragedy most effective when conjured through distinctive images ... As he ponders whether humankind is fundamentally cruel, his painful memories render the novel’s title ironic: there is a stark absence of humanity in these all-too-human acts. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts portrays people whose self-determination is under threat from terrifying external forces; it is a sobering meditation on what it means to be human.
Mercy is a human impulse, but so is murder. In Human Acts, Han Kang's novel of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath, people spill blood, and people brave death to donate it. With a sensitivity so sharp that it's painful, Human Acts sets out to reconcile these paradoxical and coexisting humanities ... Each word of Human Acts seems hypersensitive, like Kang has given her sentences extra nerve endings, like the whole world is alive and feels pain, not just human flesh — even a slab of meat on a grill thrills with horror. She finds violence at the heart of things ... Human Acts has style problems. Long sections are written in the second person, a strategy designed to collapse the distance between character and reader but which actually enhances it...And then, Deborah Smith's translation feels undeniably like a translation: It is stilted, with odd register switches ... Nonetheless, Human Acts is stunning.
Her new novel, Human Acts, showcases the same talent for writing about corporeal horrors ... Han deftly outlines the anatomy of violence, as when a character’s cheek is struck so hard that 'the capillaries laced over her right cheekbone burst.' Wounds form scars, and over decades, the survivors bear reminders of their pain–and of the lives cut down beside them.
Despite Deborah Smith’s poetically rendered translation, reading about human acts like these can be excruciating. But true to the urgency conveyed through its frequent use of second-person narration, Han’s book is also filled with human acts involving profiles in courage that inspire hope ... Human Acts is filled with talk of wandering and lost souls, struggling to connect; here, they’re allowed 'grazed contact' with one another, painstakingly recreating a community that the government tried to destroy but which cannot be silenced.
Human Acts is grounded more firmly in reality than The Vegetarian but is just as inventive, intense and provocative ... Given that history of censorship, it’s important to appreciate Human Acts as a work of considerable bravery; the subject matter is controversial in itself, but Kang’s nonlinear, surrealistic treatment is a tremendous risk that ultimately gives the atrocities and the characters who endured them a visceral immediacy ... The subject matter is almost unbearably bleak, but there are moments of dark, transcendent sublimity in Kang’s writing ... In examining the effect of violence through both mundane and unthinkably tragic moments, Kang gets at the universal question of what it means to be a person. It’s rarely a pleasant or an easy read, but Human Acts is a profound act of protest in itself. Dong-ho’s tragedy and the web of people affected by his death isn’t just a Korean story. It’s a human one.
Kang provides an intimate examination of humanity at its worst breaking point and considers both the immediate and long-term repercussions. The prose is pristine, expertly paced, and gut-wrenching. However, what most distinguishes the writing is Kang’s ability to switch between first, second, and third person point of view. Each chapter brings to life a new perspective, some that are jarringly personal and others that necessitate more distance to bring broader context to the catastrophe. Yet, Kang’s use of second person narrative is what truly sets Human Acts apart. With Kang’s deft language and attention to detail, this point of view essentially places readers into the emotional and psychological terror of Gwangju. This also allows Kang to enter a haunting stream of consciousness, one that unfurls trauma in real time ... a must-read for 2017.
Han’s novel Human Acts, set against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising and spanning three decades, is a work of tremendous intellectual and philosophical ambition. It continues the inquiry into violence and self-determination that Han began in The Vegetarian, in which a housewife resists the strictures of her family life by gradually refusing to eat: a self-abnegation that literally diminishes her body. The rest of the book’s characters struggle to rationalize her increasingly erratic behavior. Plausible justifications for her fasting—health concerns, religious doctrine, faddishness—ultimately fail. Her rebellion, they are slow to realize, is against the idea of the family itself.
Han also writes about bodily suffering in harrowing detail throughout Human Acts, but here her characters are above all preoccupied with the nature of the soul. Where does it go after the body is destroyed? How do the soul and body separate? How do souls communicate with one another? … Human Acts consists of six chapters that center on different characters—innocent children, imprisoned and tortured students, a persecuted book editor, a ‘factory girl’—and a factual epilogue by the author … Human Acts is an easy book to admire but not an easy one to read.