HAN KANG, GRANTA PUBLICATIONS, 224 PP., $25.95
History—especially traumatic history—is written in the body, on the body, through the body. It persists not only in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one, body being inseparable from soul.
Man Booker Prize–winning author Han Kang makes this much clear in the pages of her powerful novel Human Acts. The book, originally published in Korea in 2014, in the UK and Canada in 2016, and in the US in 2017, takes the mass killing of protestors during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising as a point not only of departure, but also of continued return. “After you died I could not hold a funeral, / And so my life became a funeral.” This couplet, written by a character in Kang’s multi-voiced narrative, signals how certain events do not stay contained in a single timespan, but spread through multiple ones, echoing and refracting and shivering through corps and corpses alike. One early chapter of the novel is narrated by a boy whose body has been dumped into the bottom of a mass grave. One late chapter is narrated by the boy’s mother: spoken by a body that gave way to body, by a body that remembers body despite itself.
The self-reflexivity Han Kang brings to writing about this trauma—one that she did not directly experience herself, though she was born and grew up in part in Gwangju—is particularly wise. One character critiques, resists and questions a researcher who aims to record and transcribe her uprising “story” some 20 years later.
Another character, whose body was tortured with repeated jabs of a ballpoint pen during his imprisonment, narrates his chapter to just such a researcher.
The author herself becomes a character called “the Writer” in yet another chapter—a writer who has haunting dreams after reading accounts of the violent massacre in the streets of her home city.
The reader, too, is a body marked by history—and marks history on others. This is one implication of many which may haunt readers after experiencing Human Acts. —LEAH SANDALS