HUMAN ACTS BY HAN KANG
Korean poet and novelist Han Kang has been an esteemed literary figure in her homeland for decades. In 2007, she published a slim tripartite story about a woman who decides, to the mystification and then anger of her husband, to forgo meat because she’d “had a dream”. It’s a novel of extreme violence, both physical and psychological, but also deep sensual pleasure. In 2010, it became an acclaimed film, and five years later, was translated into English as The Vegetarian, winning the Man Booker International prize in 2016. In Han’s hands, a woman’s ordinary, if sudden, decision to become vegetarian becomes an allegory for refusal, anger, control, subversion, death and desire. The translation by Deborah Smith, a young British woman who admitted to picking Korean on a whim, is both vivid and beautiful.
Human Acts, also translated by Smith, addresses a central event that occupies Han’s writerly conscience. In May 1980, in the city of Gwangju, students had demonstrated against Chun Doohwan, a general who had seized power in a coup. The rebellion was suppressed and hundreds were tortured or killed. Han writes: “When my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet... some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.”