Lost in Translation: Human Acts // Han Kang

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Human Acts by Han Kang presents a uniquely structured perspective on an important piece of global history, showcasing the depths of human cruelty, but also human empathy, and kindness. The novel is a collection of short stories translated by Deborah Smith that may at first seem rather disjointed, aside from their titles, but slowly paint a horrifying picture of the events and the aftermath of ‘the Gwangju Uprising’ (known in Korea as May 18). Kang uses a second-person point of view in several chapters to bring the reader into the story as a character, experiencing everything through their eyes—you walk through a gymnasium full of corpses, you light a candle for them—which makes the later events all the more harrowing to read through.

The translation is straightforward and the simple prose lends itself to amplifying the meaning of the words. This grounds the book firmly in reality and shocks the reader into truly understanding what is being said, rather than just the words on the page. I’m sure the original Korean offers an even deeper understanding and while I lament not being able to read it, the translation is more than adequate and impactful on its own.

Without spoiling too much, this book is aptly named. All acts within its pages are human, they—or some version of them—really occurred, for better or for worse. The words ‘human acts’ together hold no specific connotation and allow you, as the reader, to make your own judgement on what ‘acts’ they refer to. Is it the indiscriminate killing of civilian protestors? The denial of proper burials, leading to hundreds being lost in mass graves? The casual and agonizing torture of prisoners?

Or is it the students shouldering a reality far too heavy, far too soon, in order to mobilize; contacting loved ones and identifying and burying bodies? A playwright so committed to the truth that he puts on a silent performance rather than bow to censorship? The simple humanity of taking someone in from the rain, sharing a meal, or offering a kind word?

There is a breadth of humanity demonstrated in Human Acts, a spectrum. There are good people doing good things, and good people doing bad things as necessitated by their situations. There are horrors and evils one can scarcely imagine transpiring, much less living through. With this novel, Kang presents us with humanity and firmly places us in it, forcing us to grapple with what we might have done in this situation. She tells us, “this is the world, and you are a part of it” without judgement.

This book will change you. It will make you question yourself and the people around you, thrust into contemplation, reflecting on the life you’ve lived and the one you hope to build.

What a remarkably human thing.

Words by Marlee Gaitanis

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