Humanity and repressive governments will always be interesting topics to discuss in literature, for in this realm all traumatic experiences of living under bad regimes can be perpetuated, forever stay on papers and in people’s mind, if not solved. Books are an effective medium to pass over to the next generation the painful history they should know, though they may not have the capability, or will, to make it right or give justice to those who had been wronged in the past. Human Acts, the wonderfully narrated novel by Han Kang, is clearly intended to do just that, so people will never forget there was a certain dark period in South Korean modern history.
The novel starts—in an atmosphere that’s more than merely depressing and in a somewhat vague manner—with a young boy looking for his missing friend, dead or alive. There has been some sort of a riot, as it is later gradually told, where the government-backed military fired bullets blindly to random citizens on the streets and killed many people, even those who weren’t actually part of it. Dong Ho, the young boy, keeps wandering through the Provincial Office to find Jeong Dae, this friend of his, but to no avail. He lingers there however, still in the hope of finding Jeong Dae, and helps sorting and dealing with corpses. Never does he know that Jeong Dae’s body, dead already, has been stacked somewhere behind bushes and slowly decaying. He only knows that he actually saw Jeong Dae when he was shot, and left him in the middle of the riot.
It needs a string of subtle guilty on Dong Ho’s side and slow paces of storyline to get to what truly happens to the two young boys, and what truly happens to the country. Throughout the next chapters, readers are told how the government becomes more and more tyrannical—tightly censoring books, imprisoning innocent people on false charges and treating them like worthless animals, causing incurable trauma across the nation—and how South Korean people at that dark period have to live their lives where committing suicide and insomnia are not something unusual.
The main event told in the book took place in the early 1980s and 1990, when an authoritarian ruler had been assassinated only for people to see another one coming up and making even bigger chaos. It was a horrible time South Korean people in the past had to experience—and hopefully won’t repeat itself in the future—when even a self-claimed democratic government used an excuse of banishing northern infiltration from their southern part of the peninsula to punish people without mercy and oppress them just to maintain the status quo. It was when university students held demonstrations on the streets and got arrested, when common people were dragged—voluntarily or not—and got shot. In fact, this particular period seems very common everywhere. Here in Human Acts, both innocent and guilty people are imprisoned and being questioned inhumanely, left hungry for days before being released after a very strange, without-any-evidences trial. Traumatized, some of them even commit suicide, or, worse, try to kill people.
Han Kang tells the depressing, goosebumps-giving story from the points of view of those who are involved in, or become victims of, the riot handled with cruelty by the military: from the young boys, the prisoners, the eyewitnesses, to the writer herself. And though Han does make an enough effort to introduce all those characters early in the first chapter (alongside with Dong Ho), but still the plot, and subplots, where they dwell are not easy to deal with. The narrative is so “thick” that readers need to peel it layer by layer in order to see crystal clear where the storyline goes. Han doesn’t make it easy for readers to enjoy her tale—as if she wants them to suffer together with the victims—and forces them to really follow each of the characters to know exactly what happens inside and what effects it has on them.
Han’s writing style in Human Acts is neither truly realistic nor the opposite. To describe all the hardships and violence, Han doesn’t shy away from taking the realistic approach to display horrible scenes as explicit as possible. On the other hand, Han uses an almost surrealistic style to tell about the trauma all the victims have to endure. It is perhaps to make it more dramatic, sharper that readers can’t help but feel uneasy and disturbed upon absorbing the fear, the restlessness, the insanity brought about by dictatorship prevailed in that era. It is really hurtful to see those things written blatantly on the paper, and Han Kang really pulls it off.
All in all, Human Acts by Han Kang is a book that is so depressing, so sad, so hurtful to read, not only for the dark period the reader has to experience through letters, but also for the way Han Kang wrote and presented it to her audience. If anything, it is a book that forces the reader to see inhumanity clearly through its heavy words.