In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.
The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.
Human Acts starts with the story of one boy, of what happened to him over a few short days in May 1980. It starts with him looking amongst the dead for his best friend, who he had seen shot in the street by soldiers. It ends with him dead, gun in hand, as he tries to make a stand. There are lots of dead in Human Acts, and lots of friends and family looking amongst them for their loved ones. Loved ones who had taken to the streets just like the boy and his friend had, protesting against military rule in South Korea.
The boy is Dung-ho. He is fifteen. And this is the Gwangju uprising, where – depending on reports – hundreds of people were killed over a period of nine days and others as the result of torture and retribution for having stood up to a brutal regime. Brutal is the only word I can think of to describe what I read. Han Kang pulls no punches in her description of what happened to those that died and those that survived.
What happened to some of the survivors is told through long chapters that are more like short stories. Each survivor is visited at a different times in their lives and at different times in South Korea’s history and each is connected to the first chapter and Dung-ho. None have ever fully recovered from what happened to them as a result of their involvement in the uprising. Most of them were young. There were students, factory workers, parents. One was the author herself, who was a child at the time. None were ever the same as a result of what they went through.
It wasn’t a pleasant or easy read at times and I struggled in places to not skim through graphic details. I felt I needed to read every line though because this isn’t just about what happened nearly 40 years ago, this is still happening – if not in South Korea then in other parts of the world. People are still being tortured and abused and it does make you wonder just what we are as humans if we keep doing this to each other. Han Kang says “the question which remains to us is this: what is humanity? What do we have to do to keep humanity as one thing and not another?”.
I don’t know the answer and wish I did. As strange as it may sound, I feel grateful to Han Kang for asking and opening my eyes in such an eloquent way. Because, after finishing this over two weeks ago, it’s still a question that is rattling round my brain and I don’t feel it is going to go away. I am also grateful to have been given the opportunity to read this book. It is beautifully written, despite the subject matter, and translated. The characters are so real, I felt completely connected to them and their fate. For as dark and as hard to read as it was, I loved this book and can’t recommend it enough.
Note: I received a copy of this book from Net Galley in return for a fair and honest review. All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own.
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