Canadian Art - - Reviews -

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

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