Human Acts by Han Kang is one of the 10 titles shortlisted for the lucrative and prestigious International Dublin Literary Award 2018 at a ceremony in the Mansion House, Dublin, on April 5. The overall winner will be announced on June 13, 2018.
In these days of left and right, good and bad, North and South, rational and irrational, rogue and role model, it is perhaps even more difficult to turn our minds and memories to the period in South Korean history described in Han Kang’s Human Acts.
Taking us back to 1980, Kang introduces us to a time of great repression and State violence against the residents and students of the city of Gwangju.
There we meet friends and students Dong-ho and Jeong-dae. And through them are introduced to many of the other characters in this short novel, even though Jeong-dae is dead from the outset.
In his quest to find his slain friend, Dong-ho has found himself working at a makeshift morgue at the Provincial Office, where the dozens of bodies are being brought for identification and return to their families. While all the time dealing with the everyday horror of the repression, he is also confronted by his guilt about surviving the assault that claimed his friend.
All about him Gwangju is tense and on alert as the soldiers are expected to return to violently quell what is left of the protest movement. There is at once a sense of a city under siege and in great trepidation and also of a people determined to stand up for their rights and to do the right thing by those who have already lost their lives.
However, what is clear to everyone is that despite the mounting corpses many people are still missing, including Jeong-dae. Kang allows the reader an insight denied to her characters in Gwangju when she takes us to Jeong-dae as he lies dumped with dozens of other corpses at some location out beyond the limits of the city.
Back at the Provincial Office there is still room for hope, even if it is constricted by the reality of recent events. However, out here in the dark there is no such hope. The reader must come face-to-face with the true horror of mass killing at the behest of the state – any state. And we must be somehow grateful that those still hoping are not privy to this sight and experience.
Kang is no stranger to international plaudits having previously won the Man Booker International Prize for her widely acclaimed The Vegetarian. Human Acts is a fictional account of the real lives of at least some of its characters, including Dong-ho. With an economy of description and emotion, Kang presents us with a the full impact of the horror and destruction of this repression on the students, their families and friends, but also on publishing and intellectual life in this university city through censorship, imprisonment and fear in this university city.
Translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith
Barbara Clinton ©