Poetic Brutality: Human Acts by Han Kang

  • onJuly 22, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byAndrine Pollen
Levende og døde (Human Acts)
Tr. Vivian Evelina Øverås


Visiting another country always makes me interested, aware, and alert to the history and culture of that country. My eyes open up; I sense news from the country with a deeper interest; I suddenly see myself placed in another spot on planet earth, blending in with a people I often know much too little about—and I become aware of that lack of knowledge.

When I first visited South Korea to attend the Seoul International Book Fair in 2016, it did not take me long to notice an author who was seemingly everywhere: Han Kang. She was recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize, and posters of The Vegetarian made me curious about her. To my great satisfaction, back in Norway, I found that two of her books were about to be translated into Norwegian. The first book, Human Acts, also seemed to offer more insight into, and history about, the country I had just visited, which I wanted to know more about. While reading the book, I learned about a massacre that had taken place in the city of Gwangju in 1980. I was twelve years old at the time.

Human Acts starts off in a language so poetic and beautiful—in tremendous contradiction with the brutality it describes—with the voice of a young boy. Fourteen-year-old Dong-ho is looking for his best friend after the brutal massacre. If he finds his friend, will that friend be alive or dead? Immediately, we are there, right in the middle of what has happened. Dong-ho, unable to locate his friend, is recruited as a volunteer to sort the dead bodies after the massacre. Spread out in a gym are eighty-three corpses, some identifiable, others not. Dong-ho does the task of registering distinguishing marks and characteristics of the bodies. Will this help the families trying to find the mortal remains of their loved ones? What was the background for the massacre, and what makes people so cruel, so cynical, so stubborn and convinced of their right to take another’s life?

In chapter after chapter we meet different characters who describe the most brutal ways people act towards their own countrymen. The massacre in Gwangju is described from the point of view of the living, those searching for the dead who answer back to the living. We start with Dong-ho, but the next section is told by the dead friend himself, followed by the stories of an editor, a victim of torture, a mother in grief, and the author herself.

The characters have all been scarred by the massacre—whether they have been killed, have survived, or were victims of torture, censorship, or denial after the tragedy. Dong-ho’s eyes are young, fresh, and inexperienced when exposed to the massacre, and Han Kang’s language is calm, poetic, and beautiful. This strengthens the deep contrast between the language itself and the actions against the victims. The fascinating way the book is told—through the voices of different characters, both alive and dead—we witness the massacre and the resulting consequences, the uproar and the aftermath.

Han Kang writes about a civil uprising in South Korea in 1980, an event that was overlooked in the world. Why did the news of Tiananmen Square in 1989 reach the world so widely, whereas Gwangju was never brought to our attention?

This made me think of Solidarność and the struggle for democracy in Poland around the same time. Why did I hear so much about Poland, but nothing about South Korea?

In Human Acts, Han Kang discusses what it means to be a nation and what happens when a country fights its own people. Dignity and pride shine through the dark history of the book to lift the reader to believe in humanity yet again. Literature brings awareness of the world around us and gives insight and reflection on what we have yet to imagine. Han Kang is a brave, poetic, and important voice in the world of literature today.

I recently heard an author stating that his reason for writing books was to be able to understand himself better. My immediate reaction was that the same counts for me as a reader: I read in order to understand myself better. I believe reading and writing bring people closer to themselves and to each another. Visiting another country always makes me reflect on my own background, my own inheritance. I could just as well have been born in Gwangju. I did not know anything about it—and what happened there could have happened to me.


by Andrine Pollen
Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA)

Author's Profile

Han Kang has received the Man Booker International Prize 2016, the Yi Sang Literary Award, Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literature Prize. English translations of her books include The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015), Human Acts (Portobello, 2016), and The White Book (Portobello, 2018).