Friday, December 30, 2016

Human Acts

Title:  Human Acts
Author:  Han Kang
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  1101906723 / 978-1101906729

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In early 1980, South Korea was a heap of dry tinder waiting for a spark."

Favorite Quote:  "I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race. And that includes you, professor, listening to this testimony. As it includes myself."

Even before reading the book, the cover and the title of this book alone leaves an impact. Human Acts. The actions of human beings towards other human beings so often wreak havoc. The human family becomes the cause of its own destruction and leaves haunting tales of sorrow. It has happened so many times throughout history and continues to happen again and again. The wish remains for human acts to be those of love and kindness not hate and oppression.

The city of Gwangju, South Korea is a metropolitan center with its history reaching back centuries to the 50s BC. In 1980, the city and country were under the newly installed military rule of Chun Doo-Hwan. In May, 1980s, protests by university student supporters of democracy began the so-called Gwangju Uprising, also known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising and the Gwangju Democratization Movement. These protests led to an immediate, severe military response from the government. Over the course of about ten days, May 18 through 27, the protests continued, and the government continued its militarized response. Records disagree on the the death toll, with lists ranging from 150 to 2,000.

This book comprises memories about that uprising, narrowed down to the memories surrounding the death of one young man named Dong-Ho. In interconnected chapters, the book depicts the events and their aftermath through different perspectives:
  • The Boy, 1980
  • The Boy's Friend, 1980
  • The Editor, 1985
  • The Prisoner, 1990
  • The Factory Girl, 2002
  • The Boys' Mother, 2010
  • The Writer, 2013 - This epilogue is really the inception of the book for the epilogue is about "the writer" who "was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising." The author describes her connection to the story, the reasons her interest grew, and her research.
Through these eyes, the book depicts imprisonment, questioning, torture, grief, loss, and death. The chapters often describe the details, allowing the reader to step back and envision the horrific whole.  The details and the individual experiences deepen the impact of these human acts, something that cannot be reached through broader historical descriptions. At the same time, the chapter heading with generic people in the titles suggests the broader impact of the events beyond just the specific young man and the lives he touched. The movement of the book through time shows the ripple effects of the events years and decades later. "Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded."

This book, though fiction, bears witness to a dark event in history. I admit that I knew nothing of this history before reading this book, nor would I have been likely to read South Korean history. The power of fiction is such that it allows a broader audience, an audience that may read the fiction and be inspired to research the true history. Fiction is not history, but can certainly point to history for those willing to learn more. A tragic and haunting book.


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