Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

When it came to choosing a female South Korean writer, there was really no choice to be made. Han Kang is a previous winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and two of her novels recently made it onto the top 5 of a list of the best 100 works by female writers in translation.

Despite these plaudits, I didn’t enjoy Human Acts. It’s not the sort of book that’s designed to be enjoyed, though it is, I think, important. It uses fiction to take an unflinching look at the events of, and fall out from, the violent suppression of the Gwangju uprising in 1980 (about which I till now knew nothing). The recounting of the horrific events of that time, the slaughter of innocents, the torture, is relentless. It challenges us to look away, and I really, really wanted to look away and never pick up the book again.

At the heart of the book is the life and death of a young boy, Dong-Ho.

“Looking at that boy’s life … what is this thing we call a soul? Just some non-existent idea? Or something that might as well not exist? Or no, is it like a kind of glass? Glass is transparent, right? And fragile. That’s the fundamental nature of glass. And that’s why objects that are made of glass have to be handled with care. After all, if they end up smashed or cracked or chipped then they’re good for nothing, right, you just have to chuck them away.

Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn’t be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass.”

I sympathise hugely with the plight of the real-life victims of the Gwangju uprising, and the families that they left behind.

However, I found that the novel’s laboured, circuitous prose created a distance between the reader and the characters, and so the read was strangely emotionless. Perhaps the characters are supposed to stand, at times, for the collective experience and the collective suffering, but for me it didn’t quite work.

I’ve read other books with very difficult subject matter, and found them less difficult to read, but with this novel I felt like I was wading through a thick, viscous liquid for days. It’s a short book (just over 200 pages), but I could only face 10 pages or so at a time.

Having just reading about Margaret Atwood’s well-realised fictional dystopia Gilead in The Testaments, it was sobering to recognise echoes of that novel in the accounts here of terrible, real events of 1980 in Gwangju: the indiscriminate deaths, the requisition of public spaces for bodies and prisoners, the clandestine, damning record-keeping.

Human Acts is worthy and polemical, the sort of book a prize committee couldn’t not give an award to, but it’s a punishing read.

Unexpectedly, it was in the very personal Epilogue to the book that the characters and events of the novel finally seemed fully realised. We learn that Han Kang was born in Gwangju and haunted by the violence there. As an adult, she made contact with the family of the school boy Dong-Ho, upon whom the character in the book is based, who lost his life there in 1980. The book seeks to pay tribute to his life and death – and to the lives and death of all those others who were murdered in the Gwangju uprising – while examining the nature of violence and brutality.

I won’t be racing off to read more writing by Han Kang, but I’m pleased to have become acquainted with her work.

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