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'Human Acts' Tries To Reconcile Bloody Human Impulses

Mercy is a human impulse, but so is murder. In Human Acts, Han Kang's novel of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath, people spill blood, and people brave death to donate it. With a sensitivity so sharp that it's painful, Human Acts sets out to reconcile these paradoxical and coexisting humanities.

"I'm not an animal anymore," says Yeong-hye, the protagonist of The Vegetarian, Han Kang's Man Booker Prize-winning 2015 novel. Yeong-hye wants to become a plant, so she drinks only water and eats only sunlight. She starves to "shuck off the human," become a tree rooted deep in the earth, standing high in the woods. She is mad, and she is ecstatic. Perhaps hers is the only sane response to the dreadful range of the word human: to renounce it.

In 1980, in Gwangju, South Korea, government forces massacre pro-democracy demonstrators. The bodies are stowed in the hall of the complaints department of the Provincial Office. When the bodies — the complaints — grow too many, they are moved to the school gymnasium, and there, a boy named Dong-ho looks for the corpse of his best friend. His is the first section, followed by six more stories of the victims of Gwangju — including a spirit tethered to a stack of rotting corpses, the mother of a dead boy, an editor trapped under censorship, a torture victim remembering her captivity, and, finally, a writer.

That startling final section slips into nonfiction. We learn that the author lived in Dong-ho's house before him; her family escaped to Seoul by luck. When her father brings a secret book of photographs of the massacre home, she finds a photo of a mutilated girl. "Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke," she writes. The seven chapters of Human Acts describe the breaking of that unnamed tender thing for seven people. The essential goodness of other people, the stability of government, the sense that we are safe inside our skin, not mere eggs waiting to be cracked by careless hands — we readers lose that seven times, too.

"To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered — is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?" asks one character. To be either meat or monster? The longing to escape, to be something other than human that shines so clearly in The Vegetarian, is here, too, if submerged: "Trees, you were told, survive on a single breath per day. When the sun rises, they drink in a long, luxurious draft of its rays, and when it sets, they exhale a long stream of carbon dioxide. Those trees over there, who hold those long breaths within themselves with such unwavering patience, are bending under the onslaught of rain." ("Who," not "which.")

Each word of Human Acts seems hypersensitive, like Kang has given her sentences extra nerve endings, like the whole world is alive and feels pain, not just human flesh — even a slab of meat on a grill thrills with horror. She finds violence at the heart of things.

Human Acts has style problems. Long sections are written in the second person, a strategy designed to collapse the distance between character and reader but which actually enhances it. I don't need to be Dong-ho to feel with Dong-ho. As if the story, our shared humanity, our empathy, won't suffice, but a loud finger jabbed to our chests — yes, you! — will do it. It is the promise of this novel — and even of fiction generally — that we can feel with and for others without needing to be them.

Han Kang has an ambition as large as Milton's struggle with God: She wants to reconcile the ways of humanity to itself.

And then, Deborah Smith's translation feels undeniably like a translation: It is stilted, with odd register switches. Strangely enough, this foreignness and distance worked well in The Vegetarian. We spend the whole book chasing the cryptic shade of Yeong-hye, so another layer of fog on the glass only makes the novel more poignant. Occasionally translations exoticize rather than bring us in: Parts of Human Acts feel distant, and beautiful, and strange, when they should feel like looking in the mirror.

Nonetheless, Human Acts is stunning. Book reviews evaluate how well a book does what it sets out to do, and so we sometimes write nice things about books that perfectly fulfill trivial aims. Otherwise, we'd always be complaining that romance novels or political thrillers fail to justify the ways of God to men. But Han Kang has an ambition as large as Milton's struggle with God: She wants to reconcile the ways of humanity to itself.

She doesn't do that, of course. Not because of the occasional missteps in style and translation, but because of the scope of her ambition. We can't get out of ourselves, discard our awful humanity, take up the answer The Vegetarian gives to the question asked by Human Acts. Kang fails, but hers is an impossible task, and hers a magnificent failure.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.