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’.
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/