Human Acts by Han Kang

Cover

Human Acts by Han Kang, originally written in Korean, was published in 2012 and tells the story of the Gwangju Uprising from the perspective of 6 different characters.

As a Korean, the book was a little bit of a difficult read as Kang fully depicted the violence and loss that the uprising led to, and admittedly, it felt a little embarrassing and shameful that I was nowhere close to being aware, let alone understanding, how horrific the uprising was. Human Acts allowed me to look at the uprising as a story that changed people’s lives, rather than just some historical event in my country’s history.

The book itself is extremely explicit. Torture scenes in chapter 4 convey physical violence in a way that I’ve never seen before. Just the thought of getting a finger jammed and stabbed between my knuckles or having a cigarette put out on my eyelids had an effect on me that no other book has had before- I almost winced when I read it. Kang describes the sheer physical pain in such a descriptive manner that readers can attempt to imagine just how terrible the pain that the victims of the uprising were forced to endure.

But I think that was the purpose of the book; rather than just being a historical novel, the book spreads awareness and historical context behind the victims of the uprising, both before and after the event. A common theme that is prevalent in the book is suffering, and a message that the text could carry is that some wounds never heal. Not a single character fully moves on from the tragedy and the ripples that this event had throughout the victim’s lives is what the book is mostly composed of.

Personally, I believe that the author wanted to send a personal message of mourning for all the loss suffered during the uprising as well as spread awareness of a rather unknown event in Korean history. Most Koreans, especially the younger generation, tend to not know the full extent of the brutality during the uprising and Han tells a story of victims that she had a personal connection to in order to tell the full story of the fear and suffering these victims lived through. By this being Kang’s means of storytelling, she is able to emotionally capture readers like me. This book could mean many different things for readers, but one of the most significant meanings it holds is the importance of national history. As a Korean, this book served as an opportunity to learn about the buried tragedies of my country and what the citizens have lived through in order to become a nation with great international influence today.

Overall, Human Acts is a phenomenal novel that not only is incredibly intriguing but also helped me find a sense of national identity and pride. It is a difficult read and was mentally straining, but I would consider Human Acts a heartbreaking must-read. Especially for you Koreans.

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17 year old student in Seoul, South Korea

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Kai Shim

Kai Shim

17 year old student in Seoul, South Korea

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