There is a disturbing thing which can occur when we’re faced with death on such a large scale as that which occurs in war or disasters. A group of individuals can be reduced to a number. Even when faced with piles of bodies we can start to think of them as things rather than people because the horror of what we’re seeing is too terrifying to deal with. This certainly happened to me a couple of years ago when I was watching the film ‘Night Will Fall’ about the process of creating a documentary with footage taken by Allied Forces inside German concentration camps. It’s a reality almost too nightmarish for the mind to deal with, but of course you can’t turn away from victims who’ve been rendered voiceless. “Human Acts” begins with such a startling confrontation and gradually reinstates the human face of those who’ve been lost as well as testifying to the struggle of those who survive. It starts with the immediate aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea where hundreds of demonstrators protesting the military dictatorship were killed and beaten by government troops. This novel traces the survivors of this conflict using a radical style of writing to weave in and out of their perspectives, that of the dead and the reader her/himself who becomes inextricably drawn into the reality of their situation.
Adolescent school children work to prepare and organize bodies to be identified by their loved ones and readied for a funeral ceremony. A boy looks for one body in particular – his friend who was killed while by his side in the skirmish. When asked if he feels any fear working with so many corpses he replies: “'The soldiers are the scary ones… What's frightening about the dead?'” The consciousness of his dead friend persists in the narrative. Through it, he shifts the reader’s focus and the story’s point of view so we see the scenes from both the deceased and the characters still living in fear of the militia. It’s remarked at one point that “Being left as the sole survivor would have been the most frightening thing.” The novel follows the price of survival over many years until close to the present day. It includes stories of different aspects of the conflict and the society through the perspectives of a variety of characters including an editor dealing with state censorship, a prisoner, a factory girl and a grieving mother who demands official acknowledgement for the loss of her son.
Han Kang's writing style changes throughout different sections of the book. At some points she invokes an interior voice or uses the confrontational second person "you" which could be directed at the reader or a specific character. Other times the narrative has a more documentary feel switching back and forth from the present to the past. Each shift in her method of telling better reflects these very different individuals’ stories which involve some recurring characters. It was interesting starting this new novel “Human Acts” having so recently read Kang’s book “The Vegetarian.” Whereas this earlier book explored a woman’s inwardly blossoming but outwardly deteriorating life through the perspective of three people close to her, “Human Acts” is simultaneously a novel with a broader political perspective and also more intensely personal to the author herself. It’s significant that the afterward is in the author’s own unmediated voice discussing the significance of the Gwangju Uprising on her family and how she approached this story. This is a novel about the legacy created by those members of the population living under a military regime who were willing to bravely stand up to it. Kang imaginatively takes readers into the reality of these victims’ lives and provokes serious questions about individual responsibility. She states: “Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.” Their actions and personal sacrifice made a statement which has shaped the country’s history. It’s also about the actions taken by the survivors of this conflict to memorialize those who lost their lives and are continuing their fight for human independence. “Human Acts” is a novel filled with significant insight.