Review – Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts Han Kang

I have never understood the idea that structure could somehow supersede content in writing. The two can work in tandem (a la Pynchon) of course, but I just can’t get behind praising a work’s structure if it’s still otherwise weak. Han Kang’s Human Acts is far from a bad book, but it seems to me like something you can’t totally appreciate if you don’t appreciate structure above content.

Human Acts is an introspective take on the Gwangju Uprising, a South Korean student movement in 1980 in the city of Gwangju. During this revolt, city residents took up arms in response to South Korean troops firing at, brutalizing and killing Jeonnam University students demonstrating against the government. Kang’s novel is then historical fiction – as it describes the plights of many fictional but representative individuals involved in the uprising. At the center of the novel is Dong-ho, whose narrative takes place in the first chapter of the novel, which is itself told in a unique second-person POV. Dong-ho is killed, and the reverberations of the “human acts” of killing and being killed temper the minds of the rest of the novel’s POV characters. There is an editor struggling against censorship demands, Dong-ho’s friend, Dong-ho’s mother, a prisoner and a factory worker. Each character offers a different perspective, in a different storytelling style, painting a cruel and tragic picture of the Gwangju Uprising.

Truth be told I could only make it halfway through this novel, up to the end of the editor’s chapter. Now, as just described there’s demonstrably good content here. A worthwhile historical subject and an author who, as a South Korean woman, has a cultural as well as personal impetus behind writing about it. But as a reader I found it difficult to engage with. To get to the heart of it. The structure of the story isn’t even that experimental, but I often found myself distracted by the writing itself. It felt overly lyrical and verbose when it should have been crass and blunt. The images of burned corpses and dried sweat and misery and oppression really didn’t come through to me at all. Which took something away from the experience for me. Many readers describe the book as “unflinching” or “brutal” or other similar adjectives, but I couldn’t really get where they were coming from. The actual historical event upon which the book is based was certainly brutal, tragic, etc, and any sincerely committed historical account of it ought to be unflinching in its gruesome detail, but the novel itself? Maybe I’m desensitized (I thought large swaths of Blood Meridian were more tedious than horrific, to be fair), but I don’t think the novel itself communicated well the full horrible range of emotions that the uprising brought to light.

It felt like there was a dissonance between content and structure here that I think you could cast aside more easily if the way one writes is just as important to you as what one writes about. Which I feel like a lot of “literary” readers can do, but I can’t personally get a handle on. Historical fiction as a genre in general is fraught for me though, as I tend to read and then wonder why I shouldn’t read a nonfiction historical account instead. I had similar issues with, for instance, Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

But maybe that isn’t quite it either. Human Acts is not originally in English, so the problem could very well come from the translation. The second-person narration in the first chapter, for example, was hard to read for me. At first I thought this was just because it’s second-person, which is typically a little gawky. But I happened to have just finished reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, which has a very compelling essay told in the second-person. Laymon’s work was told in his voice despite being second-person, and it really allowed you to get into his head. Something likely got lost in translation here, because I don’t think the same can be said of Dong-ho. Maybe it felt more personal in Korean, but here all I could sense was a literary author or translator trying to play with structure. Which just didn’t affect me the way it seems to affect many other readers.

 

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About Bryan Cebulski

Historian, critic, author. Undercover queer. Aspiring P&C adventure protagonist. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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