‘Looks like rain,’ you mutter to yourself.
– Opening sentence
Before Human Acts, I had never heard of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980.
Now, I’m sat here wondering how a massacre can go forgotten, and how many others have I never heard of. Just because I live on the other side of the world, does that mean it is right for something so horrific to be unreported?
Or is it irrelevant? I might not have known about the Gwangju Uprising, but I grew up learning about Stalin’s and Hitler’s mass murders. I watched the Twin Towers fall on my parents television set, too young to fully understand but aware that hundreds of people had died.
As you can probably tell, Human Acts isn’t the most upbeat of books.
Han Kang tells the story of the Gwangju Uprising through multiple characters over a period of thirty years. Human Acts may be a work of fiction – and a beautiful one at that – but it is based on the true stories of the survivors and documented accounts.
The final chapter reveals that Kang was nine years old during the Uprising. Gwangju is where she grew up, although she had moved to Suyuri, Seoul that same year. Although none of her relatives were involved, Kang later learnt that a young boy who had moved into her old family home had been killed.
It is his story that forms the core of Human Acts, a beautifully haunting tale of violence, fear, death and survival.
I admit I initially struggled with the first chapter. It is written in the second tense, which I found difficult to follow. However, once I got into the flow of the narrative, by the end of the second chapter I was completely enthralled.
Kang is an outstanding writer, having the ability to conjure art and poetic beauty within the darkest of scenes;
It must have been about midnight when I felt it touch me; that breath-soft slip of incorporeal something, that faceless shadow, lacking even language, now, to give it a body. I waited for a while in doubt and ignorance, of who it was, of how to communicate with it. No one had ever taught me how to address a person’s soul.
And perhaps, or so it seemed, my companion was equally baffled. Without the familiar bulwark of language, still we sensed, as a physical force, our existence in the mind of the other. When, eventually, I felt him sigh away, his resignation, his abandonment, left me alone again.
There were some bits that were hard to read, that made me cringe and open my mouth in disbelief. Can people really be so cruel? Can people really do that to other people?
Of course they can. They do. That’s why Human Acts exists in the first place. It sent me down a dark rabbit hole of thought – I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as ‘light’ reading or those looking for a relaxing read.
And yet, if you’re like me and are a bit morbid at heart, and appreciate excellent writing, albeit about a dark subject, then you’ll find yourself fascinated with Human Acts. I literally just finished reading it, and already I want to pick it up and start again – I’ll definitely be adding Kang’s other work to my wishlist.
(5 / 5)
I stared, mute, at that flame’s wavering outline, fluttering like a bird’s translucent wing.
– Final sentence