"Human Acts" by Han Kang

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Author Han Kang splinters her narrative in Human Acts into fragments, and thereby captures the pulverized lives of the survivors of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. It’s not only highly evocative of the partial, debilitated existences of these poor unfortunate people, but in Deborah Smith’s translation, it’s eloquent and riveting.

An estimated quarter of a million South Koreans demonstrated for democratic reform a few months after General Chun Doo-Hwan seized power in the vacuum left after the prior strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated in late 1979. These demonstrations took a particularly popular and energetic form in the historically under-represented city of Gwangju. (So much so that the city and its inhabitants have become emblematic of the struggle for human rights.) Human Acts depicts the fallout in human misery from the brutal crackdown that suppressed the uprising.

And this depiction achieves a stunning effectiveness by its unadorned painting of simple human reaction to atrocity. People lived through it somehow, their tortures starting out as physical but lasting their entire lives in their haunted psyches. This is where Deborah Smith’s sterling translation comes to the fore: she renders in beautiful, simple terms the human face of suffering South Korea. It’s beautifully done.
As another chapter in the saga of population under an authoritarian heel, this book takes its rightful place.

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