Monday, 7 December 2015
Human Acts by Han Kang
Firstly I'd have to mention a massive debt of thanks to Portobello Books for providing an ARC of Human Acts by Han Kang, the book is due next month and it feels more than fitting that my reading in 2015 that began with The Vegetarian is now ending with Human Acts both of which are translated by Deborah Smith. A first observation between the two books is that where The Vegetarian feels on the whole a largely character driven work, Human Acts takes it's cue from historical event, one that is close to it's author, Han Kang. Human Acts comes to us through six installments and an epilogue, Deborah Smith also provides an introduction which connects the author to the presented novel and offers insights and backgrounds in the translation of the novel, and of the nuances of it's original Korean title, the book has courted controversy since it's publication in 2014.
Throughout the six narratives a resurfacing character, who comes into focus through the varying perspectives is Dong-ho, a young student who becomes caught up in the violent repression of a demonstration in the South Korean city of Gwangju in 1980, and through the chapters a number of other orbiting characters resurface subtly linking the narratives together, interestingly the chapters start out from 1980 and as the novel progresses each chapter advances closer towards us to the present day, the last chapter, or epilogue entitled The Writer is dated 2013. Given that Gwangju is Han Kang's native city there are a number of instances and scenes within the book and chapters that feel have a biographical element to them, in one chapter an editor for a publisher who is about to publish a work from a playwright but encounters the censor, this chapter is presented on the occasions of seven slaps the narrator receives, as with all of the chapters as well as linking to Gwangju they offer nuanced glimpses and recollections into each of their narrators personal histories. Another chapter entitled The Prisoner from 1990 is told in the form of the events being recollected to an enquiring Professor who it appears is researching the events of Gwangju, the narrator recounts his treatment after being rounded up and his relationship with another prisoner, Jin-su, the narrative continues on after they meet again years later, the evidence of the indelible scarring of their treatment whilst being incarcerated remains as the men endeavour to reconcile the events of their pasts.
Deborah Smith points out that the book is not a simple chronology of Gwangju, Human Acts feels very much that it is a testament of the horrific events seen from differing perspectives and characters as well as from differing points in time, but at the same time there are lines laid within the novel that link from the initial event through time past and into the present day, a major one is Dong-ho, one of the chapters is narrated from his mother who recalls the point of last seeing him alive and dated from 2010, although despite being one of the central figures to the novel the character of Dong-ho carries a certain amount of anonymity, it feels that Han Kang has presented us with a sketch of him, although it feels that we see the barest outlines of him he remains highly tangible, his premature fate and snuffed out innocence highly and deeply poignant, and this anonymity carries with it a certain sense that he is an everyman, Dong-ho could be anyone. Reading Human Acts is an often deeply moving and harrowing read and to be presented with the violence and brutality of it's events is to wonder again at the depths of man's inhumanity.
Human Acts at Portobello Books