I read the Vegetarian a couple of months ago and whilst it was very disturbing and twisted, I could still appreciate it for what it was and I gave it a 4 star rating. In comparison, Human Acts in my opinion, is much more accomplished as a novel and is extremely socially significant.
It is unflinchingly brutal and horrifying. The pages pulsate with bloodshed and barbarity that punches you in the gut. It focusses on the aftermath of an actual event, the Gwangju student uprising. Student protesters and civilians came together to fight for democracy opposing the dictatorial rule and were completely obliterated by the government forces. Han Kang side steps the actual event itself and begins with the piles of young bodies, dismembered, disfigured and strewn about and the chaos that ensues.
This book is structured in interconnected points of view at different times in the aftermath of the event. The novel starts at the morgue, with civilians cleaning and identifying disfigured bodies, and a young boy trying to find his friend. The next chapter is from the perspective of the conscience of that dead friend as his identity leaves his rotting, decomposing body. We then move 5 years into the future to a prison cell, where the unspeakable torture of the prisoners captured in the uprising is described. The novel then moves 15-20 years forward to the perspective of the survivors where the repercussions and trauma of the event still haunt their lives. Eventually, there’s a chapter from the mother’s perspective, which is heartbreaking. And finally we get into the mind of the writer, Han Kang, on how and why this book came to be.
The Human Acts in essence embodies the cruelty and complete absence of compassion, empathy, and what is intrinsically humane. The only perspective, I wish was included in the story is that of the government forces. Did they just blindly follow orders? Did the guilt of hundreds of lives they mercilessly killed haunt them thereafter? It would have been very interesting to understand that.
Nevertheless, this novel is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Deborah Smith’s translation of Human Acts is even more haunting and beautiful than the Vegetarian, if that is even possible. The Han Kang – Deborah Smith combination is a tour-de-force to reckon with and I will close my eyes and pre-order anything they write.