Human Acts by Han Kang review: a Korean tragedy with its own flaws

This meditative novel by the author of The Vegetarian is heartbreaking and amazingly disjointed

Human Acts
Human Acts
Author: Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
ISBN-13: 978-1846275968
Publisher: Portobello
Guideline Price: £12.99

History overpowers this eerie South Korean novel, which does no disservice to its author. In writing about the vicious events of May 1980 in Gwangju, when students supported trade unionists in a pro-democracy protest against the military dictatorship of army general Chun Doo-hwan, Han Kang explores the thin lie between the dead and the living dead. Most powerful of all is the twilight zone existence to which the traumatised survivors are doomed.

The scale of brutality inflicted by soldiers, who randomly clubbed and bayoneted their way through the crowds, is savage, and Han leaves little doubt as to how protesters were indiscriminately killed. It suggests what would happen nine years later in Beijing, when pro-democracy students were similarly shown no mercy. In both cases the official death tolls have always been judged not to reflect the true loss of civilian life.

Han's disjointed narrative is pitched towards lamentation. While Human Acts is about the events in question, she also confronts the wider reality of human atrocities, the evil that men do. Hence the sublime irony of the title.

The book begins with a dream-like prologue of sorts. In it Dong-ho, a ghost boy, searches for his friend, and his initial fear about the coming rain soon acquires shocking relevance. The downpour will only add to the stench of those decomposing bodies not yet placed in coffins. Many have been identified by relatives; others remain unclaimed: “[T]hese are all fully covered. Their faces are revealed only occasionally, when someone comes looking for a young girl or a baby. The sight of them is too cruel to be inflicted otherwise.”


In one of several chilling sequences, a mound of bodies is set alight by soldiers, who stand about waiting until the dead have been further diminished. The ghost boy’s courage is born of defiance: he disobeyed his elder brother and refused to go home. His quest results in his death. Han uses the second person voice to achieve a dream-like urgency, and the effect summons echoes of Antigone’s search for her brother’s corpse and also Orfeo in the underworld.

A suggestion of ceremonial rhetoric sometimes undercuts the conversational tone of prevailing bewilderment. This seems contradictory, yet Han’s narrative, fragmented as it is and conducted through several viewpoints in a shifting time scale spanning more than 40 years, is intended as a memorial.

Staggering facts

Of the many staggering facts, one line alone best expresses the theme of betrayal as another of the living dead voices his incomprehension: “[O]ur soldiers are shooting. They’re shooting at us.” That is totally predictable, as they belong to an army run by a dictator, who had succeeded the previous dictator (Park Chung- hee) only months before.

The author was nine at the time of the massacre, and she has lived within its shadow. Anecdotes she would have heard become part of the history. The real Dong-ho, upon whom Han’s ghost boy is based, lived in her family home. A sense of duty overwhelms the entire work. Han is fulfilling her role of the artist as witness.

For all its emotive force Human Acts lacks the artistic cohesion of Han's only other novel yet to be translated into English: The Vegetarian, a profound meditation on suffering and grief in which a young woman slowly withdraws from life.

In this outstanding novel, Han’s eloquent restraint emerges with devastating results. Her instinctive sensitivity to the plight of her central character, a housewife who decides to renounce meat, is extraordinary.

In Human Acts, Han attempts to balance the public and the private. Although she describes the violence with an explicit candour, including the natural processes that commence breaking down corpses, she is more convincing in the more nuanced passages.

These concern Kim Eun-sook, a young editor who, having been slapped by an official, returns to her home in a state of shock. Elsewhere another young woman, a former factory worker, is also presented as living in a state of extended trauma. A former prisoner recalls the tortures he and others suffered.

The novel is at its best in the isolated moments with a character attempting to make sense of the aftermath of the massacre, as when Dong-ho’s aged mother recalls the baby that he had been. It is less convincing when the author sets out to write the story and recalls that “my initial intention was to read each and every document I could get my hands on”. After two months of this, she is unable to continue because she begins experiencing nightmares.

Random methodology

Han’s honesty makes one wish that she had decided on a more cohesive narrative intent. The unevenness of her methodology, its randomness, also affects the voices. This has an impact on the prose, which, even allowing for the deliberate monotones of some of the first person sequences, is often flat. Nor does translator Deborah Smith’s lightweight introduction work. If it had to be included, it should have been as an afterword – or, better still, been written by a historian.

Several of the narrative shifts don’t work because of the looseness of the characterisation. Kim, the young editor, does emerge as fully developed, and her mental turmoil is compelling. Described through the third person, she lives alone and wants this life to end. She doesn’t do the things other women do.

In one of the most brilliantly drawn scenes in the book, Kim takes a manuscript, a book of plays, to the censor’s office. On collecting it, she discovers that it has been virtually obliterated.

“Her initial impression is that the pages have been burned. They’ve been thrown onto a fire and left to blacken, reduced to little more than a lump of coal.” The plays, she realises, have been silenced. When one of the plays is later performed, it is acted out in a symbolic silence.

Han Kang begins her story with the ghost boy. By the close, when she has entered the narrative as the witness, she formally summons him. Having interviewed his brother, a science teacher who confirms the damage done to his mother, Han sees how such a human tragedy continues to shape lives.

Human Acts is an important novel, moving and heartbreaking in its dignity. It is also not particularly accomplished or coherent. Sometimes, though, that really doesn't matter.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times