Han Kang's "Human Acts": a Hopeful Uprising and a Murderous Response
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It was two years ago that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian banged onto the English-language literary scene. The novel, in Deborah Smith’s compelling translation, was first to win the redesigned Man Booker International in 2016. By turns beautiful and disturbing, it foregrounds a housewife whose life and body change through a small act: refusing to eat meat.
Han’s exploration of bodies and agency brought a sharp new sensibility to English. Her novella Convalescence (2013) had appeared in a bilingual edition, but it was The Vegetarian that introduced her work to a wide English readership. Human Acts, also translated by Smith, expands this vision to encompass our bodies’ responses to repressive state violence. The novel’s core questions, about dignity and agency, overlap in startling ways with Mustafa Khalifa’s Syrian prison novel The Shell, also just released in English.
Human Acts (titled The Boy Is Coming in Korean) is grounded in the 1980 Gwangju uprising and the South Korean military’s murderous response. It begins not with the small city’s hopeful uprising, nor with the reasons for it, but with the bodies catalogued and stored inside the Provincial Office, as seen through the eyes of a middle-school boy. The bodies are mute flesh, but they are more than that, even if the boy isn’t sure what that “more” might entail.
The middle-school-aged Dong-ho remains at the center of the novel. He is the link between all those who appear, all of whom are affected by the uprising, killings, and mass arrests. After Dong-ho’s story, titled, “The Boy, 1980,” there is, “The Boy’s Friend, 1980,” “The Editor, 1985,” “The Prisoner, 1990,” “The Boy’s Mother, 2010.” The novel ends with “The Writer, 2013,” when Han Kang herself steps into the chain of stories.
We never rise above the landscape to get a bird’s-eye view of Korean history. Instead, we know what’s happening only through our characters’ everyday actions and their everyday despair. Most of the book unfolds in present tense, much of it in the second person.
Thus, you, inside the body of Dong-ho, must move between the bloated corpses, noting down details on your clipboard. You do the best you can to organize the bodies. You originally came to search for the corpse of your best friend, but you stayed on to help others.
Flag-waving, anthem-singing humanity
In Han’s novel, the exercise of our humanity doesn’t require a grand, creative act. Instead, most characters claim their agency through singing the Korean national anthem. In the first section, The Boy wonders why they are singing the national anthem over people who were killed by the state. How could the flag or anthem have any meaning here, among these particular dead?
The character who narrates “The Prisoner, 1990” was caught up in the mass arrests that followed the Gwangju uprising. He feels, late in the section, that he has understood why the government tortured and starved him. “We will make you realize how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing in the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies.”
Later, the prisoner is brought out to face a magistrate in a mass sentencing, and he’s certain he’ll be shot by the guards. But when the chief justice appears, one of the prisoners sings the national anthem: “Almost in spite of myself, my own voice was drawn out of my throat. We who had had our heads bowed a though we were already dead, who had been sitting there as nothing but loose agglomerates of sweat and blood, were for some reason permitted to continue our quiet song unchecked.”
No miracle occurs, and the anthem certainly doesn’t change the judge’s mind. Yet it gives all the prisoners a momentary, improbable, and individual humanity.
In the section set in 2002, “The Factory Girl” remembers how young Dong-ho asked her why they sang the country’s anthem back in 1980. She thought of how she would answer twenty-two years later: “We needed the national anthem for the same reason we needed the minute’s silence. To make the corpses we were singing over into something more than butchered lumps of meat.”
Each of the characters feels thrown around by history, acted-upon. A representative of state censorship slaps “The Editor,” and she must find a way to accept it. “The Prisoner” and “The Factory Girl” both move around aimlessly, lost inside the bagginess of their lives. Yet each has a chance to recover an energetic selfhood, as Dong-ho’s mother does when she tells the story of her son.
In a way, the novel is about how novel-writing makes us human. But, more than that, it’s about the act of purposefully remembering. In her final section, “The Writer,” Han mentions a man who’d been lynched, but “spitting out fragments of teeth along with a mouthful of blood, he held his failing eyes open with his fingers so he could look his attacker straight in the face. The moment when he appeared to remember that he had a face and a voice, to recollect his own dignity, which seemed the memory of a previous life.”
Humanity is synonymous here with dignity, and it’s not about finding a way to vanquish state power. Instead, it’s about being able to remember with tenderness and affection: a previous life, a dead child, a lost friend, or a massacre in one’s country.