“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.”
This was the experience of Han Kang, the author of Human Acts, when she saw a photograph of a woman whose face was mutilated in the 1980 Uprising in South Korea. I am blatantly borrowing her words to describe what befell me while reading ‘Human Acts’. This book unveiled that delicate and vulnerable slice of my mind, buried deep inside, about which I was unaware and unperceptive till then.
Han Kang is an acclaimed fiction writer from South Korea who has carved her own secure place in World literature with her book, ‘The Vegetarian’, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Even though she had authored many books in Korean language, The Vegetarian was her first book to be translated to English by Deborah Smith, followed by Human Acts. I can still vividly recall the heavy heartedness and choking I endured while reading The Vegetarian.
Human Acts will not only asphyxiate you, but will leave you bruised, beaten, humiliated,tortured and suffocated to such an extent that, many a times, you will end up wishing for death, which is a blessing compared to suffering. ” If life was the summer that had just gone by, if life was a body sullied with sweat and bloody pus, clotted seconds that refused to pass, if life was a mouthful of sour bean sprouts that only served to intensify the hunger pangs, then perhaps death would be like a clean brushstroke, erasing all such things in a single sweep”, thought a character in this novel, who survived the brutality of the state military.
The political background of this novel is the Gwangju uprising in South Korea which happened in 1980.(2 years before I was born).When President Park Chung- hee (Father of President Park Geun-hye, who was the first woman President in South Korea and ruled from 2013 to 2017) was assassinated in 1979, there was widespread social and political unrest in the country. Then his close aide,Chun Doo-hwan, seized the military power and began to intervene in the domestic activities in the country. Once the previous President’s rule ended, pro democracy movements gained wide support with a rampant demand for newer reforms and to end the existing martial law. This resulted in anti martial law demonstration in May 1980 in which more than ten thousands of students, professors and common people took part. In response, Chun Doo-hwan used his forces to suppress this mass movement and extended martial law to the entire nation and ensured press censorship. Innumerable people including university students were killed, went missing or tortured in prisons.(There is a disparity in the figures provided by the rulers and foreign press sources). Civilians in Gwangju took arms and tried resisting the military troops from entering their city but could not withstand the barbaric and cold blooded counter- attack for long.
This book has 6 chapters, each chapter being a sort of ‘psychological autopsy’ of a character. All these characters are linked to each other in some way or the other and are affected by the Uprising. The narration style varies from chapter to chapter without affecting the pace of story telling. In the first chapter, the narration style used is ‘Second person’ . This chapter is about a 15 year old boy, Dong-ho, whom the author addresses as ‘you’. He was trying to search for his missing friend in the municipal gymnasium where dead bodies were stacked. The second person narration used by the author makes it impossible for us to escape the situation and emotions of this character. Dong-ho lingers till the end of the novel, though we come to know of his death in the second chapter .By the time we finish reading the novel, Dong-ho becomes an integral part of our system and all those who knew him become part of our own memories.
Both first person and third person narration follow in the subsequent chapters. Han Kang uses words to create images that will imprison your consciousness and consume every bit of yourself. If a novelist is able to implant a character from an unrelated and unfamiliar life situation in your mind, make that character grow in you and ultimately consume you, then the job of the novelist is done. Han Kang has done her job exceptionally well; I cried multiple times, shedding tears/blood for all the people who inflicted or succumbed to human violence.
Han Kang , as in her previous book, The Vegetarian, explores human violence; be it violence to self, body or others. Only when adversity strikes us, we will realise how much of humanity is actually left in us. Han Kang wonders,”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?”If you read newspapers daily and follow what is happening around us, I am sure you would have become a victim to this question sometime or the other. The nature of the question is such that, even Han Kang fails miserably in providing an answer.
The epilogue of the book is about the author herself reflecting on the Uprising and the impact that it had on her. She was 9 years at the time of Uprising. In the epilogue, fiction seamlessly connects to reality where we come to realise that the author and her family were the previous tenants of the same house where Dong-ho lived later. Han Kang’s family was able to escape to Seoul just before the uprising began. She writes,”Gwangju’ had become another name for whatever is forcibly isolated, beaten down and brutalised, for all that has been mutilated beyond repair”. Yes! We encounter many situations in day to day life which can be summed up by this single word, “Gwangju”!
The genius of Han Kang lies in the fact that she could weave a flawlessly incredible work of fiction based on pure historic facts doing justice to history and the art of story telling alike.(Many writers stumble here!) In the process, she never failed to capture human emotions which is the crux of Human Acts. If you are interested in history, in understanding the evolution of violence and response to violence in human beings and do not mind being punched, smothered and bruised by words, then please do not hesitate to procure this excellent work of fiction by Han Kang.