After reading strange but compelling ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang (winner of the Booker Prize) I asked for her next book Human Acts for my birthday. I took it on holiday, although I don’t think you could call it light holiday reading, and finished it off on the plane.
The introduction by Deborah Smith (Kang’s translator) explains the situation in South Korea in the 1980’s when Chun Doohwan assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee, and then expanded martial law himself. Student demonstrations in the Southern city of Gwangju lead to a brutal crackdown by paratroopers. People, young people, were killed and their bodies dumped, left to rot, or burned.
Human Acts explores when happened during a brief period when the civil militia resisted the paratroopers and how the lives of those individuals were affected thereafter. The chapters are from the perspective of different characters in the years following the assault, and how the death of a young boy has affected them all. There is a strong theme running through the book of the relationship we have with our bodies, and how people are tortured, or violated to distort their view of their own bodies.
Han Kang spent her early childhood in Gwangju before moving to Seoul, the boy who dies, who haunts the book, moved into her old house in Gwangju after her family left. So the story is pretty personal for her.
I can only judge the English translation, and assume it is faithful to the source, the language could be described as simple. Certainly, the English version is accessible but there is an oddness that comes from the Korean style of the author and the translation process. I quite like it. The brutality of the content of the book is quite clear. And it got pretty emosh for me at the end, just a warning.