This is an #ownvoices book that is based on the historical event known as the Gwangju Uprising of South Korea. Han Kang was born in Gwangju and moved to Seoul when she was 9. This book was originally written in Korean and was translated to English by Deborah Smith who also translated Kang’s other popular book, The Vegetarian.
The Gwangju Uprising was spurred by the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. He had been a dictator over South Korea for about 20 years. After his assassination, his protege, military leader Chun Doo-hwan took over and from there expanded Martial Law. Protests for democratization, an end to martial law, minimum wage and freedom of the press began. To shut people up and scare them into submission, the military began killing those who dared to protest and anyone else who got caught in the crossfire.
This story is told from many perspectives. It highlights when the event occurred and the effect it had (even many years down the line) on the people who were part of it. There is also a section set in 2013 that is about Han Kang and her connection to this event. Many think Han Kang wrote this book as a kind of response to the election of South Korea’s current president, Park Geun Hye. She is South Korea’s first female president and also the daughter of dictator Park Chung Hee who was assassinated. Her being elected president was like rubbing salt in an open wound for many.
Han Kang said that for the translation of this novel, it was important to keep an impartial tone to it. She didn’t want the writing to be injected with too much emotion. Deborah Smith did a really good job with that. Some really horrific things are described so matter-of-factly and I think that actually gives the book more punch than using language that is meant to draw emotion out of you purposely.
I chose the books I chose this month because I wanted to learn something from them. With this one I learned a lot about the history of South Korea. This isn’t something that I was ever taught in school and it’s an event that I didn’t even know occured until I heard Han Kang wrote a book about it. I’m happy to be a bit more educated about the topic now.
If you didn’t like The Vegetarian, I think you should still give this book a shot. I wasn’t a fan of the Vegetarian myself (I think I gave it 2 stars) and I was really pleased with this book. It very masterfully highlights different aspects of human nature. My rating for Human Acts is 4.5 stars. I would definitely recommend this one.
Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma.
Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.