Human Acts by Han Kang

A historical-fiction on a vicious event in South Korean history.

4/5 stars.
Read from December 27, 2017 to December 31, 2017.
ebook, 171 pages.

After loving The Vegetarian by the same author, I was excited to read this book, especially after learning of its historical significance.

 “I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there.”

In 1979 South Korea’s dictator, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated. Park’s successor, Choi Kyu-hah, and major general, Chun Doo-hwan, noting that the country was now unstable, seized power through a military coup d’état on December 12, 1979, and enforced martial law. After years of suppression under Park’s regime, this shift in power allowed for a revival in the democratic movement.  The Gwangju Uprising took place between May 18-27th, 1980.  On the morning of May 18th, around 200 students gathered in protest at the Chonnam National University in protest of its closing under martial law. By that afternoon the uprising and conflict broadened to 2000 participants where they were met with a staggering military force. Soldiers were reported to have beaten protestors and eventually opened fire on them, initiating a week-long bloody battle. On May 27th, the military regained control.

A paratrooper clubs a man arrested during anti-government demonstrations in Gwangju on 20 May 1980.
A para-trooper beating a man, 1980. From The Korean Times – May 19, 2015

An estimated 606 people died in the clashings but there is no generally accepted number or statistic on the exact amount.  While the movement failed in making an immediate change over South Korea’s oppressive regime at the time it, the event has been contributed as a major factor in South Korea’s move to democracy in June 1987.

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Photo from Hankyoreh – Aug 25, 2017.

This book follows a cast of revolving characters that are in Gwangju during this tumultuous time. Opening with a boy searching for the body of his lost friend through the mass of dead bodies from the recent student uprising. Rows upon rows of bodies in makeshift coffins line a school gymnasium. The bodies are rotting as they have not yet been claimed by family members.  Another character is a dead soul looking for its body and unravelling the moments that led up to its death.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”

The story is shocking and visceral, carrying the same haunting tone as The Vegetarian. This story, however, is less personal as it aims to embody the struggle of not just one person but of an entire nation trying to reshape its identity.  I enjoyed the majority of the characters and the encompassing stories and have since done some research to fully appreciate the scale of this incident. However, this book did not grab me and haunt me the same way The Vegetarian did. Thankfully, the writing is still exquisite, delicate but also brutal, and the story is of paramount importance to South Korean history. Additionally, the translation is exceptional and makes you feel like nothing is emotionally remiss or lost in translation.

The author, Han Kang, was born in Gwangju (both parents are writers as well) and she was 9 years old when, with a stroke of luck, her family left Gwangju for Seoul just 4 months before the uprising. This story is her testament to the event and the place where she grew up.

“That fact became a kind of survivor’s guilt, and troubled my family for a long time. I was twelve when I first saw a photo book produced and circulated in secret to bear witness to the massacre. ” – Han Kang, The White Review, March 2016

If you like historical fiction, fabulous writing, deep characters with a rich story, then you need read this book.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

“Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.” – Brian Mulroney, Former Canadian Prime Minister

4/5 stars.
ebook, 363 pages.
Read from March 6, 2018 to March 12, 2018.

The Boat People is inspired by a real refugee crisis as detailed in the author’s notes. The MV Sun Sea incident happened in 2010 when a boat docked in British Columbia carrying nearly 500 illegal refugees who were trying to escape the Sri Lankan civil war. The journey took three months…three months of squalor and close living quarters, three months without a proper bath or meal, three months of nightmares from the horrors they left behind. Yet the intentions of the refugees were questioned when they were detained at the harbour. This work of fiction tries to capture what may have gone on during that time, not only for the refugees but the works, lawyers and politicians working with and against them.

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The actual boat, the MV Sun Sea, arriving off the coast of Victoria full of Tamil refugees in 2010.

According to the author, in the real incident, there was a man who was a mechanic back in Sri Lanka that had to work with the Tiger terrorist group and it was this man that inspired the main character, Mahindan. After Mahindan’s wife dies in childbirth he becomes the sole provider of his son Sellian. As civil war tensions rise, Mahindan is left with no choice but to try and get aboard a smuggling ship to save the life of his young son. The horrors and death that Mahindan had to live with in order to board the boat are shocking and graphically detailed but when he and his other refugee countrymen are received in Canada they are detained and chained, placed into a prison, where Mahindan is separated from his son. The story also follows the perspective and family lives of the adjudicator, Grace, a Japanese-Canadian who is responsible for deciding the fate of the refugees, as well as Priya, a young Tamil-Canadian student lawyer who has found herself defending the refugees. The novel encompasses all perspectives and opinions on immigrants and refugees making you empathize with every party and giving you an encompassing image of the stresses and issues surrounding the story and the real-life issue itself. Grace is an example of a stressed and broken system in which people with no experience or right to making such hefty decisions are making and breaking them. Fred, Grace’s boss, represents the narrow but well-meaning persona of a conservative politician.

I saved this book to read last out of the five Canada Reads 2018 shortlist candidates because it has the best reviews. I have to admit, the first 120 pages were a slog. I felt disconnected from the characters and the story and felt bogged down in politics and details. I was baffled as to why people were in love with this book. However, that quickly changed. After I passed the quarter mark of the book the stakes got higher and I was soon enraptured in an emotionally gripping story.  And that ending! I was not prepared for it. Looking back, however, I feel it was the best way to end the story as it leaves the reader with the decision based on their own views of Canada.

This book opened my eyes and will open many others who read it on what the real realities of refugees.  In today’s world, especially in a Trump era of fake news, it is imperative that stories like this exist. Even for a fiction, it may be the only voice that some refugees get that someone will listen to.

The real incident changed Canada, for better or for worse, depending on who you ask, making it harder for refugees to come to Canada. The situation is worse in America with Trump’s reign and in the UK with the major vote of Brexit being based on the false belief that immigrants are stealing jobs. I hope that Canada will always be a safe place for those seeking refuge. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said it best, “Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.”

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.