In May 1980, the South Korean military fired upon students demonstrating against the closing of a university in Gwangju. The next two weeks saw militias and grieving mothers alike organizing to protest the brutality of the country’s de facto president, Chun Doo-hwan. Human Acts, the third of Han Kang‘s novels to be translated into English, centers on a single death in the weeks of violence: that of Dong-ho, a middle school student killed in the military’s last attack on civilians.
Although Human Acts presents readers with a particular view of the afterlife, in which souls are attached to this plane so long as their bodies have not been disposed of, the bodies themselves become the primary vehicle for Han’s storytelling. Beginning with Dong-ho, “The Boy,” and ending with “The Writer” — presumably Gwangju native Han herself — Human Acts uses seven point-of-view characters to explore the strength, weakness, brutality, and decay of flesh and bone. There is Dong-ho, helping to pile the bodies of students killed in the initial 18 May demonstration, searching for his friends, but realizing quickly that the summer heat and pressure and violence will have destroyed any recognizable aspect of their faces and figures. The body of his friend, Jeong-dae, lies crushed at the bottom of a pile, and his soul reaches out to find his sister and Dong-ho. Two surviving demonstrators recount their experiences in prison following the failed uprising. And Dong-ho’s mother, more than 30 years after his death, sees her young son’s body everywhere.
Dong-ho unites all of the stories in Human Acts. Some of the narrators knew him. Others only saw him after his death. But the tragedy of an idealistic middle-schooler dying for the cause they all believed in is, in many ways, the most inescapable event of that fateful summer.
Han’s novel is not for the faint of heart, but readers unfamiliar with South Korean history needn’t worry about being lost in her historical narrative. Human Acts delivers an engaging story that haunts long after the cover is closed.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.
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