Human Acts

Human Acts by Han Kang

Given my penchant for translated contemporary Asian fiction, I’ve wanted to read Han Kang for a while but have been deterred by the mediocre reviews. So I ended up picking Human Acts instead. I’d never heard of the Gwangju democracy protests before. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since the 1960s – 1990s is the biggest gap in my history knowledge, and discussions of Korea are almost completely dominated on the negative end by North Korea and on the positive end by the latest Kdrama.

1) “Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.”

Or you could make up your own song.

2) “‘The world’s changed since they assassinated President Park. The labor movement’s gathering strength, and now our bosses can’t force us to work overtime anymore. They’re saying our salaries will go up, too. This could be a great opportunity for me, I need to take advantage of it.'” – Jeong-mi

It’s becoming increasingly clear that labor has become weaker and weaker, at least in America.

3) “‘Perhaps, once Jeong-dae’s gone to university, I might even be able to follow in his footsteps. University. It’s possible, if I study hard enough.'” – Jeong-mi

Older sibling sacrifices.

4) “Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.”

The author’s descriptions of dead bodies are probably the best I’ve seen.

5) “Now begins the process of forgetting the seven slaps. One per day, then it’ll be over and done within a week. Today, then, is that first day.”

Every chapter is set up so well.

6) “It wasn’t so much eating meat that Eun-sook disliked; what really turned her stomach was watching it cook on the hot plate. When the blood and juices rose to the surface, she had to look away.”

What? That’s the best part.

7) “It was a perfectly ordinary pen, a black Monami Biro. They spread my fingers, twisted them one over the other, and jammed the pen between them.”

I really like how the author starts with one vivid image and zooms out to the bigger story.

8) “The chief kept emphasizing that our aim was only to hold out until dawn, when hundreds of thousands of Gwangju’s citizens would stream out into the streets and mass around the fountain.”

It makes no sense, but hindsight is 2020.

9) “Like those times during a primary school dodgeball game when, having nimbly avoided danger thus far, there was no one but you left standing on your team and you had to face up to the challenge of catching the ball.”

Dodgeball games perfectly summarize my philosophy. I don’t hit you. You don’t hit me. And thus, I was always the last person standing in middle school bombardment.

10) “‘I don’t like summer but I like summer nights’: that was something you came out with the year you turned eight.”

The downside of nice weather in SF is that summer nights don’t exist.

This was my favorite book in a long time. The characters are very strong, and I like books set up as a series of interconnected short stories, similar to The Overstory before it became an entangled mess. Every chapter was a mini mystery, and the author brings the reader along until we get back to one fateful day in 1980.

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