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 Vegetarian by Han Kang

Is this strange book? Yes, but it’s also a great book in which you can’t deny its beauty and potency.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 160 pages.
Read from May 20 to 24, 2016.

Is this strange book?  Yes, but it’s also a great book in which you can’t deny its beauty and potency. This book came up in my newsfeed as the latest Booker prize winner and after reading the description, I knew I had to read it.  The book was originally written in Korean and translated to English.

Set in modern-day South Korea, Yeong-hye is an obedient and unremarkable wife. The perfect kind, in the opinion of her husband, who is narrating the first portion of this story. That is until Yeong-hye is shaken by a dream that convinces her that she must become a vegetarian. While to many westerners, this is an unremarkable lifestyle choice, but in Korea it is not very well understood nor is it a popular in a country where following societal norms is very important. By becoming a vegetarian, Yeong-hye is being quite rebellious and disagreeable. Her husband and family believe this to be a phase but Yeong-hye just becomes more adamant about her choices and more passive aggressive in her actions resulting in some violent and cruel outcomes.

After a horrible intervention with her family Yeong-hye attempts suicide and is hospitalized which results in her selfish husband filing for divorce.  Yeong-hye’s has also, unknowingly, become the object of muse, fascination and sexual desire to her brother-in-law, who is an artist that does little to support his very busy entrepreneurial wife and their young child. His pursuit to create his sexual and prolific masterpiece will have dire consequences for Yeong-hye and for her sister.

“Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.”

I believe this book to be a reflection of women and their place in society in Korea as well as stigmas in regards to mental health. This book is a reflection of the consequences of being passive and obedient and the result of holding in these negative feelings and emotions and what that can do to someone’s well-being.

The first two portions of the book are narrated by men, the last is by Yeong-hye’s sister. In the first two portions of the book you get an idea of the expectations of women through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband who just wants her to be complacent and obedient. He has no shame in taking advantage of Yeong-hye when he believes that she is being disobedient. He is also envious of his brother-in-law who literally just gets to play around with his art all day and not work, while his wife works long hours and then is expected to cook and be the main care provider for her son.

“She’s a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.”

The second portion that is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. He has a envisioned a piece of art that centers around Yeong-hye but it verges on pornography. Yeong-hye is fascinating to him and he desires her. He is selfish and does little to pause and think of the consequences his actions might have outside of creating this perfect piece of art. He does little to think that he may be taking advantage of Yeong-hye since she is unwell or what the consequences would be for Yeong-hye and his wife.

“Perhaps the only things he truly loved were his images—those he’d filmed, or then again, perhaps only those he had yet to film.”

Finally, in the last portion of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister speaks. She is the only one who has attempted to help Yeong-hye and she is exhausted. She has been responsible for running a business, raising a son practically on her own, and is now trying to take care of Yeong-hye.  Yeong-hye’s sister is almost jealous of the fact that Yeong-hye is not bothered by her actions and not fitting in with a societal norms, despite her deteriorating mind and body, as it is a freedom that she has never known. The chapter is full of reflection from Yeong-hye’s sister and it evokes so much sadness and sympathy for both of the women’s circumstances.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

The lack of Yeong-hye’s voice in her own story is a reflection on women struggling to have a voice in their own lives within a restrictive society of social norms. Through the choice to become a vegetarian, Yeong-hye starts to shed everything that society expects of her, however, with no way to express and deal with the emotions and turmoil inside of her, she becomes mad, or free, in Yeong-hye’s own perception.

Disturbing, beautiful and poignant. This book is worthy of the award it received. The writing is elegant, delicate and poetic even as it deals with such moving material. Had I the option to read this book in one sitting I would have. I was moved by the characters and turmoil of Yeong-hye’s spiral to madness/freedom. Her story will be one that will stick with me forever.