In December 1979, shortly after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, army general Chun Doo-hwan assumed the role of South Korean leader. His expansion of martial law and crackdown on political activities led to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, an anti-authoritarian movement that began with student demonstrations and ended with the killing by government troops of hundreds of citizens, many of them in their teens.
Han Kang, author of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, revisits the uprising’s toll on her native South Korea in Human Acts, a harrowing and stylistically daring series of linked stories.
Kang shifts perspectives and narrative styles throughout the book. The central figure who connects the stories is Dong-ho, a 15-year-old in his third year of middle school who, during the uprising, searches for Jeong-dae, his best friend, whom he believes has been killed. But, in the process of looking for his friend, Dong-ho becomes one of the casualties.
The other stories, set from 1980 through 2013, are told from the point of view of characters who were part of the uprising, including an editor contending with state censorship, an ex-prisoner who was the militia chief in the students’ plan to hold the university’s Provincial Office, a former factory employee traumatized for 20 years by the torture she suffered, Dong-ho’s mother and, in an audacious authorial move, Jeong-dae’s corpse. The epilogue focuses on Kang herself, who recalls hearing adults speak of a murdered 15-year-old when she was 9 and now wants to learn all she can about his fate.
Although Human Acts depicts violence in graphic detail, anyone who reads this work will be moved not only by Kang’s poetic telling of horrific events but also by her nuanced treatment of the material. As the ex-prisoner asks, “Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species?” This novel is a thoughtful and humane answer to difficult questions and a moving tribute to victims of the atrocity.