Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith [in Library Journal]
With Han Kang’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 Deborah 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 epilogue, erasing any remotely comforting distance the word novel might have provided.
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.