Postal Reading group
May 2022
Notes on the book Human acts by Han Kang

Human acts by Han Kang is often described as “brutal and uncompromising”, which is arguably an accurate, but not necessarily encouraging, description of the book. More strangely, some have also referred to the book as ‘beautiful’, and I don’t think they were talking about the standard of the writing or the plot! When the author begins by talking about bodies, its certainly a bold choice of plot and you know you're in for a harrowing read. Even the most violent of crime fiction often saves the first dead body for the second chapter!

This, however, is no crime fiction. Incredibly, it is based on the true story of the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in 1980; not something which was generally covered in history lessons at school. Of course, this was current affairs when I was in my early years at primrary school, so perhaps that demonstrates that Kang was simply telling a story that needed to be told. In that task, the author has arguably succeeded, and the standard of the writing is generally good. The translator also seems to have done a good job rendering the text in natural English; no easy task given the subject matter and the original language.

However, books like this have to tread a fine line between historical accuracy, and not being too brutal; between engaging the reader while not trivialising the event, or the suffering of those who were there. It is here, I believe, that Kang has been less successful. He certainly hasn’t compromised on historical accuracy, but no matter how good the writing or the translation, there’s no getting away from the subject matter. I know I was in for a harrowing read from the very beginning, and there was no way that I could describe this as an enjoyable read. While we are spared the deatils of the actual fighting, there are still plenty of graphic scenes from the aftermath, including the rivers of blood almost literally running through the pages of the book. There’s even a chapter told from the perspective of a dead body! Is this an effective plot device, wierdly eccentric or just plain maccabre?

While I don’t blame the author for failing to make an enjoyable or ‘popular’ book from the darker side of real life history, before the book can be called good, it needs to stay in the reader’s mind or at least to make an important point. In my opinion, Human acts does neither of these things. Perhaps in an effort to spare some of the gratuitous suffering the book comes across as being impersonal. Many aspects of the book are probably a conscious plot choice on the part of the author, either in an effort to prevent the book from being too brutal, to intrigue the reader, or to demonstrate the inhumanity of those inflicting violence on such an industrial scale. However, the wierder aspects of the book, far from being intriguing, simply left me feeling completely detached from the story. Equally, I very much doubt that I will remember much of this book, as even the more graphic scenes will eventually fade from memory.

One of the things I noticed about the book is the unusual second person narration. I found this to be particularly confusing as I was never sure who was talking, to whom and about whom. Similarly, despite all of the chapters promising to form connected narratives, the overall impression was rather one of several disjointed viewpoints which merely served to prevent me from learning too much about any of the characters. For that matter, I’m still unsure what the connection between all of the individual stories is: did they all know the same person, or are they simply referring to the same event? Surely in the latter case that’s they very least we can expect? It is similarly difficult to know what the author’s intention was when writing this book. To make the Gwangju Uprising better known, and to show the horrors that humans are capable of? The book does both of these things, but surely a better book would have helped us to understand some of the causes of such violence, and better still how it could have been avoided.

The book does also raise two important questions: are humans fundamentally evil, and can consciousness survive death? Both are deep questions with obvious links to the theme of Human acts. Unfortunately, however, the author does not offer any insights into either debate. While neither question will be answered any time soon, an attempt to engage with the debate might have provided more substance to the book without the gruesome details of the massacre.

In conclusion, Human acts seeks to bring the Gwangju Uprising to a wider audience, and the author can be applauded for that bold move. The writing is generally good and supported by a sensitive translation. Unfortunately, for all of its qualities, it is not a book to really enjoy; it is too brutal for that. The unusual second person narration, and the different viewpoints with merely tangential connections make the book seem impersonal. While some of the more unusual plot choices may engage some readers, for me the overall effect was singularly unexceptional.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler