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Human Acts
A Novel
Han Kang
read on December 28, 2017

Damn this is a great book, in both subject matter, vision, and execution. (Also, that cover!). The book revolves around the events of the Gwangju uprising in May 1980, and the subsequent torture of South Korean citizens by their own government. This isn't a history book though - there is no effort to catalogue the events in any kind of academic way. Kang focuses on the events of that uprising to tell a broader story of what it means to be human in the face of the worst acts that humans can inflict on each other. This sounds terribly depressing, and many parts of it absolutely are. But finishing the book didn't leave me depressed. The writing style is so deft and poetic, that a kind of beauty comes through as well. (Credit to Deborah Smith for the English translation).

Quotes:

Certain crowds do not blench at the prospect of looting, murder, and rape, while on the other hand, others display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty in achieving as individuals. The author argues that, rather than this latter type of crowd being made up of especially noble individual;s, that nobility which is a fundamental human attribute is able to manifest itself through borrowing strength from the crowd; also, similarly, that the former case is one in which humanity’s essential barbarism is exacerbated not by the especially barbaric nature of any of the individuals involved, but through that magnification which occurs naturally in the crowds.

And another:

Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered—is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?

...

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. How they forced the women, children, and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. Some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race.

Author Bio:

Han Kang (Hangul: 한강; born November 27, 1970) is a South Korean writer. She won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 for The Vegetarian, a novel which deals with a woman’s decision to stop eating meat and its devastating consequences. The novel is also one of the first of her books to be translated into English.