Han Kang

Human Acts

Spring 2016.
Changbi/Korea winner of the Manhae Literary Prize, 2014, Sold to Max Porter at Portobello Books/Granta for World English rights, China, Vietnam, Taiwan. Portobello Books January 1, 2016. Nijgh & Van Ditmar January 1, 2016.
Translated by Deborah Smith, complete translation available. Cover Designer Tom Darracott.

South Korea, 1980. In the wake of the assassination of military dictator Park Chung Hee, a student uprising in the southern city of Gwangju has been followed by brutal reprisals, and the institution of martial law. 14 year old Dong-ho is searching for his friend Jeong-dae among the ever-increasing bodies when he becomes caught up in events beyond his control, leading to a showdown with the army. 

    Jeong-dae's corpse has been transported out of the city by the military, piled up with several others in a secluded clearing and left to rot in the May sunshine. Tethered to what remains of his body, the boy's consciousness struggles to cling to some form of life through the everyday memories of his sister, whom he senses is also dead, and to Dong-ho, whose life seems to linked to his own sentience – until that, too, is finally snuffed out.   Five years later, the country is now under the thumb of the military dictator Chun Doo Hwan, whose draconian regime of curfews, censorship and plainclothes policemen has ensured that details of the massacre remain hushed up. But the dead, left unburied and unmourned, still haunt the lives of those who survived, who are now starting to risk themselves by pushing against the gag. 

    In this richly-textured elegy of a novel, Han Kang displays a masterful command of tone as she moves between the harsh reality of oppression, dark, disjointed fantasy, and the poetry of the everyday.

The Vegetarian

Changbi/Korea.  Published January 1, 2015 by Granta UK, Hogarth/ Crown US, Zulma/France, Saga/Israel, Taiwan, Korea, Devir Livraria/Brazil,  Kwaity Orientu/Poland, Cuon/Japan, Tre Publishing House/Vietnam, Beijing Land of Wisdom/China. Nijgh & Van Ditmar/Holland.

Translated by Deborah Smith

A beautiful, unsettling novel in three acts, about rebellion and tabook, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul.   Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people.  He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners: she is an uninspiring but dutiful wife.  The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, promted by grosteque recurring mightmares.  In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly observed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion.  Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism.  His cruelties drive her towards an attempted suicide and hospitalization.  She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist.  She become the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiraling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming- ecstatically – a tree.    Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian, is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and out faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

The Wind Blows, Go!

Munji Publishing Co., Ltd./Korea. Sold to DeCrescenzo/France

One late winter night, a car driven by Seo Inju, a female artist in her late thirties, plunges into the snow-covered Misiryeong Valley. Three days later, she takes her last breath. Why did Inju head for the valley that night? Was the crash a suicide or accident? The circumstances surrounding Inju's death are never brought to light. The novel begins a year later when the narrator sees a special review in an art magazine, commemorating the first anniversary of Inju's death. In the magazine, Kang Seokwon, an art critic and professor who claims to have been Inju's lover, discloses Inju's posthumous work and pronounces her death a suicide. The narrator finds Seokwon's contact information and expresses her interest in seeing Inju's last works. The narrator, a close childhood friend of Inju, thinks it strange that these works are remarkably similar to those of Inju's dead artist uncle who had never publicly exhibited during his lifetime. Although her life had been far from easy, Inju had possessed an exuberant zeal for life, of which the narrator was well aware; in the end, the narrator rejects Seokwon's claims. The narrator begins to grope through her own memory to piece together the final year of her friend's life. She meets those who had known Inju and even sneaks into Inju's studio that has now come under the possession of Seokwon. As clues are slowly revealed, Inju's last days begin to fit together like pieces of a puzzle until the narrator, at last, discovers what actually took place on the snow-covered valley that fateful night.

Although the novel uses the structure of a mystery where clues are presented as pieces of a puzzle and the truth is revealed gradually, it focuses on life and death, memory and reality, sacredness and human conflict. Inju's uncle, who had died of a brain hemorrhage twenty years before, depicted the birth and explosion of stars through ink; his inner world had created a deep and lasting impression on both Inju and the narrator. There is a twist at the end of the novel when the narrator discovers that Seokwon had driven Inju off the road that night. He sets fire to Inju's last works, attacks the narrator with an ink stone, and disappears after locking her in the studio. The narrator gains consciousness and just barely manages to escape from the fire. The novel ends with the narrator on a ventilator, drifting in and out of consciousness, as she is carried away in an ambulance.

The problem that occurs when an unconscious patient who had been breathing through ventilatory support begins to breathe spontaneously is called "fighting the ventilator." He may not breathe in rhythm with the ventilator but "fight" it, exhaling while the ventilator delivers a breath and inhaling while the ventilator withdraws a breath. In this critical situation, the medical team will first administer sedation or neuromuscular blockade and then control the ventilator breath in predetermined volumes. The patient is taken off the ventilator only after the condition of his lungs and many other factors have been carefully analyzed. Both Inju and the narrator are put on ventilators at one point; as they fight for breath, one dies while the other hovers between life and death. The emotions and relationships of these characters continually shudder and collide like breath that is out of sync. The novel explores the beauty of existence, vastness of the universe, and human desire and limitations while it careens toward its surprising yet inevitable end.