One prime aspect of being a human should be the drive to do good. Han Kang, a South Korean author and 2016 winner of the Man-Booker Prize for The Vegetarian, writes a simple, horror packed story that will stick with the reader for days. Human Acts is all encompassing of the 1980s Gwangju Democratic Movement in South Korea and covers a 34-year period from 1979 to 2013.
The story begins with Authoritarian President Park Chung-hee’s assassination on Oct. 26, 1979. He is known as one of the most ruthless dictators this world has ever seen. His death brought hope for democracy to the people of South Korea. Those hopes were dashed, however, when Army General Chun Do-hwan assumes power and becomes more ruthless than his predecessor. Do-hwan stages a coup to seize control of the military, and places the entire country under martial law. The next day, university students protest the oppression. Military troops are sent to suppress the demonstrations and open fire on the crowd of people protesting for democracy within their country, killing protestors and bystanders.
Fifteen-year-old Dong-ho desperately searches for his best friend Jeong-dae, who was killed during the demonstrations. The bodies of those killed are placed in piles against the wall of a gymnasium so that the families can identify them. While Dong-ho is searching for his friend, he is recruited to help bring in the dead bodies and prepare them for their families. This harrowing experience leads Dong-ho to become a member of the rebellion.
Each chapter is told by different characters. It details their perspectives of the demonstrations within the confines of militarized South Korea, and their relationship to Dong-ho. Each character brings a unique view of the tragedies happening around them.
The most heart-breaking part of this book is the epilogue where the author describes her experience during the uprising in Gwangju. She was nine years old at the time and fled with her family to Seoul for safety.
“You feel the weight of an enormous glacier bearing down on your body. You wish that you were able to flow beneath it, to become fluid, whether seawater, oil, or lava and shuck off these rigid impermeable outlines, which encase you like a coffin. Only that way might you find some form of release,”wrote Han Kang.
Human Acts is both a personal and political response to the inauguration of Park Chung-hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye as president. The scabs of the previous years of dictatorship were ripped off, revealing the open wounds. May this book be the reminder that we are all capable of gracious and horrific human acts