One of the first details we learn about Dong-ho, the 15-year-old boy at the center of Han Kang’s “Human Acts,” is that he’s nearsighted. We meet him as he rests beneath a ginkgo tree, squinting at the space between branches, imagining raindrops “suspended in the air, held breath before the plunge.” His reverie is interrupted by a nearby memorial service, where thousands have gathered to sing and mourn. As Dong-ho fully opens his eyes — and the gaze of Kang’s novel pans outward — his stark surroundings come into searing focus. Dong-ho rises and returns to his post at a municipal gymnasium, where he and a small group of teenage volunteers tend to unclaimed corpses awaiting burial. The bodies have been brutalized: skulls crushed, throats slashed by bayonets, blood emptied until their skin glows ghostly in the light of flickering candles. The boy is tasked with uncovering the battered faces so that bereaved visitors might identify lost loved ones. “If only your eyesight was worse, so anything close up would be nothing more than a vague, forgiving blur,” thinks Dong-ho. “But there is nothing vague about what you have to face now. You don’t permit yourself the relief of closing your eyes as you peel back the cloth, or even afterward, as you draw it back up again.”
Like Kang’s widely acclaimed novel “The Vegetarian,” the first of her works to be translated from Korean by Deborah Smith, “Human Acts” is ruthless in its refusal to look away from atrocity. Both slim, polyphonic novels stare down violence and vulnerability, cruelty and confusion. Yet while “The Vegetarian” confronts such material in the context of a troubled family, “Human Acts” centers on the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. Following the assassination of the nation’s dictator, Park Chung-hee, in 1979, burgeoning civil unrest brought impositions of martial law, increased authoritarianism and curtailed freedom of the press. In May 1980, paratroopers and police ruthlessly attacked protesting students and unarmed civilians in the city of Gwangju. The uprising lasted 10 days, resulting in hundreds of deaths. The aftermath of that trauma, including the subsequent torture of prisoners and government suppression of facts and casualty figures, reverberates into today.
Composed of astonishing images and visceral detail, “Human Acts” forces readers into achingly close contact not just with this instance of violence, but also the violence inherent to the human condition. As one survivor observes of the massacre: “It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.”
And yet the emotional intensity of “Human Acts” does not arise from its devastating depictions of violence alone. The novel also wrenches the heart with its surprising tenderness, its intimacy in the face of cruelty, and its insistence that beneath the darkest aspects of humanity, there is also a vein of inviolable love. Consisting of seven interlocking perspectives that span 30 years, the novel interweaves voices of the innocent and bereaved, academic and imprisoned, those struggling to bear scars from the past, and even that of a disembodied soul.
“Human Acts” also draws upon Kang’s experience growing up in Gwangju, where she lived until her family moved to Seoul a few months before the uprising. Kang learned about the massacre only after uncovering a memorial photobook produced by foreign journalists that her father had secreted away: “I remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet,” she writes. “Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.”
Kang’s masterful pacing and extraordinary attentiveness allow her to recount the gruesome history of the Gwangju Uprising while returning — always returning — to nuanced scenes of kindness and love, which pour light upon an otherwise desolate backdrop. Radiant moments of solidarity are scattered throughout the book: people lining up to give blood at the hospital while troops close in; women handing out strawberries and rice balls to protesting students; crowds of civilians singing even as the city runs out of coffins. “Those snapshot moments, when it seemed we’d all performed the miracle of stepping outside the shell of our own selves, one person’s tender skin coming into grazed contact with another, felt as though they were rethreading the sinews of that world heart, patching up the fissures from which blood had flowed, making it beat again.”
The different narrators in “Human Acts” exist in close association, although any confusion this invites only serves one of the novel’s main points: Every human is part of a vast and encompassing network, linked by shared history and coexistence. If the Gwangju Uprising acted as a centrifugal force — atomizing families and communities, obliterating bodies and homes — it also drew together those who emerged from the wreckage. And as Kang so poignantly demonstrates, this tragic event continues to draw even those not directly influenced into bonds of recovery and accountability.