Human Acts by Han Kang is an eloquent and masterful investigation. It is an investigation into humanity, into the existence and nature of the soul, into the effects and implications of our memories. Originally written in Korean and published in 2014, translator Deborah Smith does a superb job of expressing these sentiments in her stunning yet detached translation of Human Acts.
The book is split into several narratives, each told by a different character, but all interrelated. Human Acts begins, though, with a student uprising in South Korea in the 1980’s. This is where the reader meets, or essentially is, Dong-ho, the character that stitches together all the rest of the stories. Told in second person perspective, Dong-ho’s narrative becomes the reader’s story: a story that then follows the reader through the rest of the book, a story told through a multitude of eyes, eyes that have seen Dong-ho, eyes that haven’t. Every perspective, every retelling, is an attempt to crack open the mystery of death, the mystery of evil.
Dong-ho haunts the characters of Human Acts through their memories or knowledge of him. The characters cannot escape the injustices that were done to Dong-ho nor the innocence he embodied. In fact, no character can turn away from the horror surrounding her despite any effort to do so. Even if given the chance to run from the pain or the terror, no one can. They need to absorb it, to be with the horror happening around them. Whether to justify the existence of those who perished or to stand staunchly against ignorance and in unison, Kang never fully reveals.
The desperate search for “why” pervades Human Acts in a way that makes the question also burn into the reader’s mind. Why such terror? Why such hatred? Why such pain?
Han Kang does a superb job of wrapping together her themes without providing an answer to any of the questions she raises. She seems to point to the fact that we are all human: these terrible acts have been committed by humans. Humans who have jobs. Humans who have families. Humans who feel. Humans who love. Humans who hate.
Beautiful, terrifying, and an absolute must read, Human Acts by Han Kang will be released in the United States on January 17, 2017. You can preorder a copy at your local bookstore today.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.