For me one of the most pleasurable moments is when I come across a new author from whom I long to hear, or literally read more of. This was the case with Korean novelist Han Kang. She has written 6 novels so far, though not all of them are translated into English yet. I originally thought of recommending “The Vegetarian”, but I was equally as impressed by “Human Acts” which I just finished reading. Both novels are translated into English by Deborah Smith. If you have a chance (and to somewhat make up for my missed quarterly recommendations with “Le Dit du Genji” and other Japanese literature classics) you won’t regret picking up both books. Here are the reasons why I liked “Human Acts” so much:
- Moving – The choice to have all characters tightly connected throughout the narrative, and the diversity of experiences provoke a highly emotional response. Tastefully – if such a word can be applied to a topic as delicate and controversial as the Gwangju massacre of 1980 – the novel does not cross the lines of sentimentality or gore. We never read extensively about the massacre itself, only through brief glimpses of memory or confrontation with its physical and mental outcomes. It is all the more gruesome, heart-wrenching, and enduring in its impact on the reader.
- Concisely enlightening – At 224 pages, it is an exercise in how to bring across a full and humane picture of a historical moment in a most economic form, very consistent with the tone described above.
- Blurring – the boundaries between reality and fiction. It is an exciting approach taken by a novelist to a historical moment. Where Murakami (another author I’ve recommended before) chose an equally personalised, but uninvolved approach for “Underground” – his work on the Tokyo Sarin Subway Incident of 1995 – Han Kang is “all-in” on this narrative of the Gwangju massacre of 1980. Han Kang pulls off the blurring of the narrator and author’s voices here to greater effect. It cleverly stretches the time of the narrative to the present day, and confronts readers with the different facets of accountability. What would you have done to honour the boy, how soon would you have moved on?
Have you read any of Han Kang’s works, and if so which one would you recommend to pickup next? Below a link to the author’s website with references to all translations of the novel available so far, and a link to a video conversation with the author about this book’s cover art:
“Human Acts” by Han Kang, published in the U.K by Portobello Books at the author’s website
Han Kang on the “Human Acts” cover art