If you were to compare Han Kang’s 2015 sensation, “The Vegetarian” (Hogarth, 188 pp., $15 paper), to a work displayed in a museum, it would be an avant-garde art installation that confounds as many viewers as it enthralls. A slim novel that was first published in South Korea in 2007, “The Vegetarian” tells the story of a woman named Yeong-hye who suddenly stops eating meat — an act that enrages her family and signals Yeong-hye’s renunciation of humanity itself, which she sees as essentially violent. As Yeong-hye plunges further into her obsession with purifying her body of flesh, it becomes clear that she’s trying to align herself with the peaceful world of plant life — or literally transform herself into a tree. Not surprisingly, almost every review mentioned Kafka or the word “Kafkaesque.”
American critics rightfully heaped praise on “The Vegetarian,” and the global buzz around Deborah Smith’s translation culminated in Kang’s winning the Man Booker International Prize, awarded every other year to novels from any country published in English. Kang’s latest novel to get an English-language publication, “Human Acts” (Hogarth, 218 pp., $22), is grounded more firmly in reality than “The Vegetarian” but is just as inventive, intense and provocative.
It centers on a tragic episode in South Korean history, when student protesters were shot in the streets of the city of Gwangju in 1980, while others were captured and tortured by dictatorial government forces. The details of the tragedy were censored or grievously downplayed by the government in the years after, and many Koreans have only recently become aware of the full extent of the atrocities committed. Given that history of censorship, it’s important to appreciate “Human Acts” as a work of considerable bravery; the subject matter is controversial in itself, but Kang’s nonlinear, surrealistic treatment is a tremendous risk that ultimately gives the atrocities and the characters who endured them a visceral immediacy.
Kang’s preoccupation with bodies is once again evident from the first page. A doomed 15-year-old boy named Dong-ho helps to wash and label fast-decomposing corpses in a municipal gymnasium in Gwangju. He worries about his school friend, who, in the gut-wrenching second chapter, we learn is already dead. Later chapters skip forward to follow the long tail of the massacre’s effects on its survivors, including a book editor who must contend with a government censor, a former prisoner who is asked to recall his time in captivity and a factory worker who lives with daily nightmares of her suffering at the hands of Korean soldiers.
The subject matter is almost unbearably bleak, but there are moments of dark, transcendent sublimity in Kang’s writing. In “The Vegetarian,” Kang’s singular talent for grotesque description served the novel’s psychosexual suspense and perverse entertainment value. In “Human Acts,” it brings the atrocities of human-on-human violence into full relief.
Kang takes a number of bold narrative risks, including a chapter told from the point of view of a dead boy whose body is trapped under a pile of other dead bodies: “When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it.” And in the boldest move of all, Kang inserts herself into the novel in the final chapter, describing her entry into Dong-ho’s story; she herself is a native of Gwangju and, as a child, learned about a boy named Dong-ho who died in the massacre.
“Human Acts” feels especially resonant given recent political developments in South Korea, where a massive presidential scandal is bringing to mind echoes of the country’s authoritarian past. (In fact, Korean media reported in December that Kang was among the country’s foremost artists and cultural leaders who were added to a government blacklist.) In examining the effect of violence through both mundane and unthinkably tragic moments, Kang gets at the universal question of what it means to be a person. It’s rarely a pleasant or an easy read, but “Human Acts” is a profound act of protest in itself. Dong-ho’s tragedy and the web of people affected by his death isn’t just a Korean story. It’s a human one.