The Korean ‘A Little Life’: Human Acts by Han Kang (2016)

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Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian‘ was one of my top reads from 2016.  It was great to know that I wasn’t alone; for much of the year ‘The Vegetarian’ has featured on the ‘staff picks’ and ‘best read’ sections of my favourite bookshops, and 2016 has seen another of Kang’s brutally dark novels translated for English readers.

Basically, what I’m saying is that I would have read ‘Human Acts’ whatever the topic.  The cover may not have grabbed me as the beautifully vibrant cover of ‘The Vegetarian’ did, but that was besides the point.  Both books had the same author, the same excellent translator (Deborah Smith).  In fact they both also have the same cover designer, and Tom Darracott really knows his material because the enigmatic and vulnerable image on ‘Human Acts’ is just as perfect for this very different novel as his stunning, colourful design was for ‘The Vegetarian’.

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If ‘The Vegetarian’ was surreally dark and disturbing, ‘Human Acts’ is bleakly honest as it confronts the most hideous of human behaviour.  Set during and after the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, it begins with a massacre, carried out by the government against civilian protesters, observed by a couple of young boys.  The first two sections deal with these friends, who get separated when troops open fire.  Both see anonymous corpses, scarred by the violence, slowly decomposing as the bureaucracy fails to deal with the atrocities.  The fact that these witnesses are so young adds a level of horror but, as the book later demonstrates, also serves to protect the reader.  The boys only see the start of the horrors.  Later, equally detailed writing will go into describing the torture inflicted on those taken prisoner and the resulting trauma experienced by them and their families.

There were paragraphs I could barely read, and others that I’m afraid I skipped completely.  Kang describes physical torture with an unrelenting objectivity that feels more like testimony than fiction. I fully understand this novel winning an English Pen award, but I was more surprised to learn that it is a best-seller in Korea; how many people are going to want to read such an uncompromisingly harsh novel?  This question inspired the title for today’s blog post; after all, loads of people read and loved Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ last year, another book that depicted abuse so graphically I found it physically difficult to get through.  I do think there are significant differences between the two novels, most noticeably, in length and scope.  ‘A Little Life’ deals with an isolated example of traumatic abuse and frames this within a wider narrative friendship and success.  In Kang’s novel, it is a whole nation who suffers and there are no unscathed companions to offer alternative opportunities in life.  I think ‘Human Acts’ is a masterpiece, and I can only hope that those who found equal depth and humanity in ‘A Little Life’ also read this much shorter book.  For other readers, I’m wary of recommending a novel that is quite so violent, but I urge you to consider trying it if you want to experience a master story-teller exploring a nation’s hidden narrative with matchless power and integrity.

‘Human Acts’ is a brutal reading experience.  Violence and violation run through the novel, as do themes of silencing and censorship.  One woman is punished, physically and emotionally, for meeting with a banned translator; the intimidation feels cruelly redundant when the censor won’t let his words be published in any case:
More than half of the sentences in ten-page introduction have been scored through.  In the thirty or so pages following, this percentage rises so that the vast majority of the sentences have a line through them.  From around the fiftieth page onwards, perhaps because drawing a line had become too labour-intensive, entire pages have been blacked out, presumably using an ink roller.  These saturated pages have left the manuscript bloated and distended, water-logged…’
The link between silencing and killing is explicit, and it grows stronger as the novel progresses.  A culture of silence was the result of the mass murders at the start of the book.  This brutal suppression of expression becomes an involuntary fact of life for the torture victims who are unable to articulate or narrate their experiences.  As the passage above shows, silencing itself is an inherently brutal act, and a silencing of grief and witnesses is almost comparable to a repetition of mass, industrial, murder.

I did not enjoy reading ‘Human Acts’, I don’t think I was supposed to.  I am however very pleased to have read it, and equally keen to read whichever of Kang’s books are next translated.  The success of ‘A Little Life’ makes me optimistic that this year will see her English audience expand yet further and this should result in more of her works being made available.  Please do consider reading ‘Human Acts’, it will teach you about history, humanity and how a great writer can approach the most terrible subjects with skill, sensitivity and relentless authenticity.

The wonderful image of the full cover for ‘The Vegetarian’ is from http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2014/04/10/london-book-fair-day-2/

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24 Responses to The Korean ‘A Little Life’: Human Acts by Han Kang (2016)

  1. I don’t know quite what to say Shoshi. It feels from your review like something terrible which MUST be read, nonetheless. Pleased to read, but not enjoyed – puts me in mind of Life and Fate, also Narrow Road To The Deep North. A kind of laceration, to avoid books which honestly deal with real darkness feels like a kind of denial. I will consider.

  2. Oh have just put A Little Life to bed and am really moved by this review. Will add to the Wish List – or should that be ‘Gird the Loins’ list. Sounds harrowing but very important and I will look out for it. Thanks for the post.

    • I look forward to hearing your views on both, but I recommend some less traumatic reading to bridge the gap first … ‘Human Acts’ following straight on from ‘A.L.L.’ has got to be too much for any reader!

  3. I really want to read Kang – but maybe I’ll ease myself in with The Vegetarian first!

    • ‘The Vegetarian’ is a real tour de force. Unlike ‘Human Acts’ I can see it being a frequent re-read, but both are powerful and passionate novels in their own right. I’m so pleased she’s getting translated!

  4. BookerTalk says:

    Sometimes you come across a book that is painful to read but yet its a rewarding experience at the same time. I wasnt sure about the subject matter of The Vegetarian so held back a bit but this one sounds more my kind of thing oddly

  5. roughghosts says:

    I haven’t even decided whether I want to read The Vegetarian although so many people I respect love it. The book, even with that great cover, has been out here in Canada for the better part of a year with no attention. The impending US release in March will change that.

    When it comes to excessive violence, it is not something I seek out. I am rather drawn to very dark, often morbid works that are not necessarily violent. I have not read A Little Life and will not. It sounds gratuitous, unrealistic and pushes a bunch of my queer buttons. As to Human Acts, at this point my life is stressful enough, the last thing I want is a book that is hard to swallow but “good for me”. Not right now. 🙂

    • Fair enough! I certainly think it’s the kind of book you shouldn’t pick up lightly and there is nothing productive about trying to read it when you know you won’t be in the mood! Unlike ‘A Little Life’ though, this does not have the edge of gratuitous or possibly unrealistic violence. It’s a brutal read, but I did not find it problematic in that way.

      It’s a shame that ‘The Vegetarian’ hasn’t received much notice in Canada. Is it usually the case that such things can be strongly affected by US releases?

      • roughghosts says:

        Unfortunately, at least for literary works, the US releases have a greater impact (we’re also due to get edition of the Vegetarian but is an expensive hardcover with an ugly cover). When I first heard of it I could not find Canadian dates. Looking back now I see we have had two paperback releases! But I have never come across it in a store. It’s weird, we are often on line with UK and Australian releases (depending on rights) but unless you are tuned in to literary media from overseas you might not know. Before blogging I virtually lived on the Guardian Books pages so I often heard of, even special ordered, books from the UK when they caught my attention. Since the Guardian revamp of their site a couple of years ago I go there much less, it’s too hard to navigate – like going to IKEA!

      • I’m afraid I rely on others to help me navigate the site. I follow Guardian books on twitter and go to those links rather than trying to find them for myself!
        I first discovered ‘The Vegetarian’ because of it being championed by Foyles Bookshops so it was displayed really prominently on their shelves for several months. It’s easy to see how books get missed though, blogging has made me aware of how many English language books from other countries I’ve somehow managed to never hear of …

      • roughghosts says:

        I just requested and received a galley of the Vegetarian from the US publisher so I guess I will read it after all!

      • Yay! A great example of good books going to those who want them most! I only hope my enthusiasm won’t lead to you have overly high expectations (though it shouldn’t – I stand by everything I said about how much I loved it).
        Can’t wait to read your review.

  6. How interesting! I don’t mind reading harrowing books, if I can have a breather afterwards. Like you, I am curious to see how Kang will be received here in the US, since A Little Life was such a success. I’ve had The Vegetarian on my list, but now I’ve added Human Acts, too. What an interesting title, considering that it seems to contain mostly unhuman acts.

    • The idea of humanity is really central to the book, one theme that is similar to ‘The Vegetarian’ is hatred of the flesh and the physical manifestations of human existence. You’re right, the title is more about setting up complexity, rather than giving answers…

  7. Stefanie says:

    Wow, sounds intense and terrible but in a good and necessary way. My library has The Vegetarian on order. I am waiting patiently. Hopefully they will order Human Acts too when it becomes available in the US.

    • I promise it’s worth the wait! Part of me is wondering if ‘Human Acts’ might get more publicity than the earlier novel, it’s equally ambitious, but has a historical basis to ground it while most of The Vegetarian is just wonderfully weird.

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  9. Sarah says:

    I’ve got ‘The Vegetarian’ in my amazon basket ready for the next time I have some cash spare, after reading your recommendation, and by the sounds of it, I’ll read this too, although i might wait and psyche myself up to it first.

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