Han Kang’s Human Acts is a pain in the ass to read. There is a reason why stories are usually told in the first or third person. Imagine reading a book written entirely in the second person. Many times I was lost in the mire, wondering whose voice I am reading and who it is addressing through the ubiquitous “you”. There were times I thought I was reading something in the first person but the narrator is addressing himself/herself in the third person. Did I mention that one of the voices is a ghost? But there is a reason why this is painful to read.
18 May 1980 is an bloody red blob in Korean history. Prior before reading this book I was totally oblivious about the bloody massacre. Hundreds of people were gunned down, beaten, bayoneted by soldiers when they went to the streets to protest the harsh military rule. The episode is known as the Gwangju Uprising. Han Kang was 9 years old when it happened and thankfully she and her family had just left Gwangju when it happened. The family who bought their house wasn’t so lucky. Their son, 15-year-old Dong-ho, was slaughtered in the massive strike. Dong-ho serves as the catalyst of Han Kang’s book of human atrocities, as she examines the dark days with penetrating accuracy and emotional heft. Every chapter is told from the point of view of a person whose life intersects with Dong-ho’s and it constantly addresses a “you”. Sometimes “you” is the dead, at times it refers to the people before and after the massacre, and many a time “you” is you, the reader. It is a clinical plot device as Kang through a cold but yet heartfelt clarity disassociates us from the violent proceedings, allowing her to unpack all the social and political reasons behind the uprising and the gut-wrenching aftermath. For me, the chapter of Dong-ho looking at his own blood-leached body and narrating his thoughts and emotions is the most forceful. The book ends with Han Kang’s own connection to the Gwangju Uprising and it tells of the rippling and crippling power of the incident and how the world can never go back to the times before the massacre.
This is not an easy read but it is a rewarding one. What is wrong with humanity? Where does one go from here? Han Kang never prescribes a way but I feel remembering and never forgetting this great failure in humanity is a small step forward.