Human acts A novel

Kang Han, 1970-

Book - 2016

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London ; New York : Hogarth [2016]
Main Author
Kang Han, 1970- (author)
Other Authors
Deborah Smith, 1987- (translator)
First U.S. edition
Physical Description
218 pages ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

IKE'S GAMBLE: America's Rise to Dominance in the Middle East, by Michael Doran. (Free Press, $17.) In the early years of his administration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set out to woo President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. But instead of stabilizing the Middle East, the efforts helped further inflame the region. Doran's account offers a cautionary tale for contemporary diplomatic interventions. HUMAN ACTS, by Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith. (Hogarth, $15.) The 1980 massacre of student protesters in South Korea is the subject of this novel, as a teenager searches for his best friend's corpse. Han, who won the Man Booker International Prize for "The Vegetarian," helps readers "witness the impossibly large spectrum of humanity, and wonder how it is that one end could be so different from the other," our reviewer, Nami Mun, wrote. OTHER MINDS: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16.) Humans and cephalopods appear to have little in common but share some crucial characteristics, including complex nervous systems. Godfrey-Smith's investigation takes him millions of years into the past and miles below sea level. As he put it: "When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all." HIMSELF, by Jess Kidd. (Washington Square Press/Atria, $16.) The supernatural and the past commingle in Kidd's debut novel. A mysterious letter leads Mahoney, a car thief in Dublin, back to his childhood village, where he was left at the door of an orphanage. As he untangles his family's history and coaxes out village gossip, he's joined by a bored, aging actress. "Add poisoned scones and letter bombs, and you have a fast-paced yarn that nimbly soars," our reviewer, Katharine Weber, said. ON LIVING, by Kerry Egan. (Riverhead, $16.) As a hospice chaplain, Egan writes, she deals in the "spiritual work of dying." Some patients asked her to share their stories, which resonate long after their death; Egan uses her book to recount them, along with reflections on her work and the issues surrounding end-of-life care. Together, these perspectives offer a guide for how to live with urgency and meaning. A GAMBLER'S ANATOMY, by Jonathan Lethem. (Vintage, $16.95.) Alexander Bruno - a debonair expat backgammon player with telepathic capabilities - travels the world beating wealthy opponents at the game. But when a tumor causes him to collapse during a high-stakes match in Berlin, he returns to California for an experimental treatment, on a wealthy childhood friend's dime.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 12, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* I fight alone every day. I fight with the hell that I survived. I fight with the fact of my own humanity. These words epitomize the collection of interconnected stories that comprise Kang's second novel to be translated into English, following The Vegetarian (2016). It begins in 1980 with Dong-Ho, a middle-school student in search of his friend's corpse in Gwangju, South Korea. His involvement with the suppressed student uprising connects him with the other characters who seek to make sense of their experiences in the aftermath. An editor, a student, a prisoner, a spirit, and a mother: all are interconnected by their desire for a reformed government and the horrific traumas they carry with them. Kang is an incredible storyteller who raises questions about the purpose of humanity and the constant tension between good and evil through the heartbreaking experiences of her characters. Her poetic language shifts fluidly from different points of view, while her fearless use of raw, austere diction emulates the harsh conflicts and emotions raging throughout the plot. This jarring portrayal of the Gwangju demonstrations will keep readers gripped until the end.--Park, Emily Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

After winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian, Han has written a harrowing second novel that traces the long-term reverberations from South Korea's 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which government troops killed anywhere between 200 and 2,000 civilians in the chaos following the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in 1979. The story opens in that fateful year with Dong-ho, a 15-year-old boy searching for his friend Jeong-Dae while tending to the bodies of protestors in the municipal gymnasium, helping family members identify and claim them. But Dong-ho is soon another casualty in the violence, and the novel, structured in linked stories, traverses the subsequent years to document the aftermath of Dong-ho's death. The story is told in a combination of first-, second-, and third-person narration by those who knew Dong-ho, and it includes Jeong-Dae's life after death, a book editor's fight against censorship, a prisoner's recollection of his captivity and torture, a former factory worker whose memories of the violence are brought up when an author needs her as a "witness," and Dong-ho's mother, remembering her son 30 years after his death. In the final chapter, Han herself reveals her connection to Dong-ho. Han's novel is an attempt to verbalize something unspeakable, and her characters often find themselves adrift decades after the event. But she humanizes the terrible violence by focusing on the more mundane aspects: tending and transporting bodies, or attempting to work an ordinary job years later. And by placing the reader in the wake of Dong-ho's memory, preserved by his family and friends, Han has given a voice to those who were lost in the Gwangju Uprising. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

With Han's The Vegetarian awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, her follow-up will garner extra scrutiny. Bottom line? This new work, again seamlessly translated by Smith, who also provides an indispensable contextual introduction, is even more stupendous. Han drops readers into a mass of deteriorating corpses, the victims of South Korea's 1980 Gwangju Uprising, when student-led demonstrations came to a gruesome end. A 15-year-old boy, searching for his missing friend, enters a school where bodies are being collected and doesn't leave alive. In the five chapters that follow, using Rashomon-like shifts in perspective, Han bears witness to what happened in that death-filled building and the hellish aftermath over decades for those who got out. Han, a Gwangju native, adds her own urgent history in the epilog, erasing any remotely comforting distance the word novel might have provided. VERDICT Lest readers think these events are specific to this place, this time, these people, the author demonstrates how inhumane human acts are "imprinted in our genetic code," citing massacres in Nanjing, Bosnia, and "all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World." The hope of someday conquering that brutal cycle is why every library should acquire this title. [See Prepub Alert, 7/11/16.]-Terry Hong, Smithsonian -BookDragon, Washington, DC © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The brutal murder of a 15-year-old boy during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising becomes the connective tissue between the isolated characters of this emotionally harrowing novel.In May 1980, student demonstrations ignited a popular uprising in the South Korean city of Gwangju. The police and military responded with ruthless violence, and Han (The Vegetarian, 2015) begins her novel in the middle of a disorienting atmosphere of human-inflicted horror. While searching for a friend, a young boy named Dong-ho joins a team of volunteers who look after the bodies of demonstrators who were killed. He keeps a ledger with details on each corpse, pins a number to its chest, and keeps candles lit beside the ones with no family to grieve beside them. The details of this world seep off the page in a series of sickening but precisely composed images. Hans evocation of savagery and grief is shockingly sensory and visceral but never approximate or unrestrained. Each characters voice seems to ring in its own space, and though they are all connected by Dong-hos experiences in Gwangju, they exist in an uncanny isolation. The novel is divided into seven parts: six acts that each focus on a different character and an epilogue that pulls in the author herself. The parts shift in time from 1980 to 2013 and in point of view, making the reader intimate or complicit to different degrees with the voice of a dead person, a survivor of torture, a mother suffering from regret and memory. Han explores the sprawling trauma of political brutality with impressive nuance and the piercing emotional truth that comes with masterful fiction. In her epilogue she writes, Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Her novel is likely to provoke an echo of that moment in its readers. A fiercely written, deeply upsetting, and beautifully human novel. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The Boy, 1980 Looks like rain," you mutter to yourself. What'll we do if it really chucks it down? You open your eyes so that only a slender chink of light seeps in, and peer at the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office. As though there, between those branches, the wind is about to take on visible form. As though the raindrops suspended in the air, held breath before the plunge, are on the cusp of trembling down, glittering like jewels. When you open your eyes properly, the trees' outlines dim and blur. You're going to need glasses before long. This thought gets briefly disturbed by the whooping and applause that breaks out from the direction of the fountain. Perhaps your sight's as bad now as it's going to get, and you'll be able to get away without glasses after all? "Listen to me if you know what's good for you: come back home, right this minute." You shake your head, trying to rid yourself of the memory, the anger lacing your brother's voice. From the speakers in front of the fountain comes the clear, crisp voice of the young woman holding the microphone. You can't see the fountain from where you're sitting, on the steps leading up to the municipal gymnasium. You'd have to go around to the right of the building if you wanted to have even a distant view of the memorial service. Instead, you resolve to stay where you are, and simply listen. "Brothers and sisters, our loved ones are being brought here today from the Red Cross hospital." The woman then leads the crowd gathered in the square in a chorus of the national anthem. Her voice is soon lost in the multitude, thousands of voices piling up on top of one another, a soaring tower of sound rearing up into the sky. The melody surges to a peak, only to swing down again like a pendulum. The low murmur of your own voice is barely audible. This morning, when you asked how many dead were being transferred from the Red Cross hospital today, Jin-su's reply was no more elaborate than it needed to be: thirty. While the leaden mass of the anthem's refrain rises and falls, rises and falls, thirty coffins will be lifted down from the truck, one by one. They will be placed in a row next to the twenty-eight that you and Jin-su laid out this morning, the line stretching all the way from the gym to the fountain. Before yesterday evening, twenty-six of the eighty-three coffins hadn't yet been brought out for a group memorial service; yesterday evening this number had grown to twenty-eight, when two families had appeared and each identified a corpse. These were then placed in coffins, with a necessarily hasty and improvised version of the usual rites. After making a note of their names and coffin numbers in your ledger, you added "group memorial service" in parentheses; Jin-su had asked you to make a clear record of which coffins had already gone through the service, to prevent the same ones being brought out twice. You'd wanted to go and watch, just this one time, but he told you to stay at the gym. "Someone might come looking for a relative while the service is going on. We need someone manning the doors." The others you've been working with, all of them older than you, have gone to the service. Black ribbons pinned to the left-hand side of their chests, the bereaved who have kept vigil for several nights in front of the coffins now follow them in a slow, stiff procession, moving like scarecrows stuffed with sand or rags. Eun-sook had been hanging back, and when you told her, "It's okay, go with them," her laughter revealed a snaggle-tooth. Whenever an awkward situation forced a nervous laugh from her, that tooth couldn't help but make her look somewhat mischievous. "I'll just watch the beginning, then, and come right back." Left on your own, you sit down on the steps that lead up to the gym, resting the ledger, an improvised thing whose cover is a piece of black strawboard bent down the middle, on your knee. The chill from the concrete steps leaches through your thin tracksuit bottoms. Your PE jacket is buttoned up to the top, and you keep your arms firmly folded across your chest. Hibiscus and three thousand ri full of splendid mountains and rivers . . .  You stop singing along with the anthem. That phrase "splendid mountains and rivers" makes you think of the second character in "splendid," "ryeo," one of the ones you studied in your Chinese script lessons. It's got an unusually high stroke count; you doubt you could remember how to write it now. Does it mean "mountains and rivers where the flowers are splendid," or "mountains and rivers that are splendid as flowers"? In your mind, the image of the written character becomes overlaid with that of hollyhocks, the kind that grow in your parents' yard, shooting up taller than you in summer. Long, stiff stems, their blossoms unfurling like little scraps of white cloth. You close your eyes to help you picture them more clearly. When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind. So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen. The anthem is over, but there seems to be some delay with the coffins. Perhaps there are just too many. The sound of wailing sobs is faintly audible amid the general commotion. The woman holding the microphone suggests they all sing "Arirang" while they wait for the coffins to be got ready. You who abandoned me here Your feet will pain you before you've gone even ten ri . . .  When the song subsides, the woman says, "Let us now hold a minute's silence for the deceased." The hubbub of a crowd of thousands dies down as instantaneously as if someone had pressed a mute button, and the silence it leaves in its wake seems shockingly stark. You get to your feet to observe the minute's silence, then walk up the steps to the main doors, one half of which has been left open. You get your surgical mask out from your trouser pocket and put it on. These candles are no use at all. You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench. It's the middle of the day, but the dim interior is more like evening's dusky half-light. The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins. Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly. You walk farther into the auditorium, toward the row of seven corpses that have been laid out to one side. Whereas the others have their cloths pulled up only to their throats, almost as though they are sleeping, these are all fully covered. Their faces are revealed only occasionally, when someone comes looking for a young girl or a baby. The sight of them is too cruel to be inflicted otherwise. Even among these, there are differing degrees of horror, the worst being the corpse in the very farthest corner. When you first saw her, she was still recognizably a smallish woman in her late teens or early twenties; now, her decomposing body has bloated to the size of a grown man. Every time you pull back the cloth for someone who has come to find a daughter or younger sister, the sheer rate of decomposition stuns you. Stab wounds slash down from her forehead to her left eye, her cheekbone to her jaw, her left breast to her armpit, gaping gashes where the raw flesh shows through. The right side of her skull has completely caved in, seemingly the work of a club, and the meat of her brain is visible. These open wounds were the first to rot, followed by the many bruises on her battered corpse. Her toes, with their clear pedicure, were initially intact, with no external injuries, but as time passed they swelled up like thick tubers of ginger, turning black in the process. The pleated skirt with its pattern of water droplets, which used to come down to her shins, doesn't even cover her swollen knees now. You come back to the table by the door to get some new candles from the box, then return to the body in the corner. You light the cloth wicks of the new candle from the melted stub guttering by the corpse. Once the flame catches, you blow out the dying candle and remove it from the glass bottle, then insert the new one in its place, careful not to burn yourself. Your fingers clutching the still-warm candle stub, you bend down. Fighting the putrid stink, you look deep into the heart of the new flame. Its translucent edges flicker in constant motion, supposedly burning up the smell of death that hangs like a pall in the room. There's something bewitching about the bright orange glow at its heart, its heat evident to the eye. Narrowing your gaze even further, you center in on the tiny blue-tinged core that clasps the wick, its trembling shape recalling that of a heart, or perhaps an apple seed. You straighten up, unable to stand the smell any longer. Looking around the dim interior, you drag your gaze lingeringly past each candle as it wavers by the side of a corpse, the pupils of quiet eyes. Suddenly it occurs to you to wonder, when the body dies, what happens to the soul? How long does it linger by the side of its former home? You give the room a thorough once-over, making sure there are no other candles that need to be changed, and walk toward the door. When a living person looks at a dead person, mightn't the person's soul also be there by its body's side, looking down at its own face? Just before you step outside, you turn and look back over your shoulder. There are no souls here. There are only silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink.  At first, the bodies had been housed not in the gymnasium, but in the corridor of the complaints department in the Provincial Office. There were two women, both a few years older than you, one wearing a wide-collared school uniform and the other in ordinary clothes. You stared blankly, forgetting for a moment why you'd come, as they wiped the bloodied faces with a damp cloth and struggled to straighten the stiff arms, to force them down by the corpses' sides. "Can I help you?" the woman in school uniform asked, pulling her mask down below her mouth as she turned to face you. Her round eyes were her best feature, though ever-so-slightly protruding, and her hair was divided into two braids, from which a mass of short, frizzy hairs were escaping. Damp with sweat, her hair was plastered to her forehead and temples. "I'm looking for a friend," you said, holding out the hand that you'd been using to cover your nose, unused to the stench of blood. "Did you arrange to meet here?" "No, he's one of those . . ." "I see. You can come and have a look, if you like." You systematically examined the faces and bodies of the twenty-odd people lying against the corridor wall. You had to look closely if you wanted to be sure; your eyes soon started to feel the strain, and you had to keep blinking to try and refocus. "Not here?" the other woman asked, straightening up. She had the sleeves of her pale green shirt rolled up to the elbows. You'd assumed she was a similar age to the young woman in school uniform; seeing her without the mask on, though, you could see she was older, more like twenty. Her skin was somewhat sallow, and she had a slender, delicate neck. Only the look in her eyes was tough and vigorous. And there was nothing feeble about her voice. "No." "Have you tried the mortuary at Jeonnam, and the one at the Red Cross hospital?" "Yes." "What about this friend's parents?" "His mother passed away, and his father works in Daejeon; he lives in our annex with his older sister." "They still won't put long-distance calls through?" "No, and I've tried a few times." "Well, what about your friend's sister?" "She hasn't been home since Sunday; I came here to look for her, too. One of our neighbors said they saw my friend get hit yesterday, when the soldiers were shooting." "Mightn't he just have been wounded and admitted to hospital?" the woman in school uniform interjected, without looking up. You shook your head. "In that case he would have found a way to call us. He'd know we were worrying about him." "Come by again tomorrow, and the next couple of days," said the woman in the pale green shirt. "Apparently all the dead will be brought here from now on. They say there's no room left in the morgues." The woman in school uniform wiped the face of a young man whose throat had been sliced open by a bayonet, his red uvula poking out. She brushed the palm of her hand down over his staring eyes, closing them, rinsed the cloth in a bucket of water, and wrung it out viciously. The water that came out was dark with blood, splattering outside the bucket. The woman in the green shirt stood up. "How about you give us a hand, if you have time?" she asked. "Just for today. We don't have enough people. It's not difficult . . . you just need to cut up that cloth over there and use it to cover the bodies. And when someone comes looking for a friend, like you did, you uncover them again. The faces are badly injured, so they'll need to get a good look at their bodies and clothes to decide whether it's who they think it is." From that day on, you became one of the team. Eun-sook, as you'd guessed, was in her final year of high school. Seon-ju, the woman in the green shirt, was a machinist at a dressmaker's on the main shopping street; she'd been left in the lurch when the boss had decided that he and his son, who'd been studying at one of the universities here, should go and stay with a relative outside the city. Both Eun-sook and Seon-ju had gone to give blood at Jeonnam University Hospital after hearing a street broadcast saying that people were dying of blood loss. There, hearing that the Provincial Office, now being run by civilians, was short of hands, and in the confusion of the moment, they'd taken on the task of dealing with the corpses. Excerpted from Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.