Human Acts

by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Read time: about 7 minutes

Han Kang stirred the literature world last year with her book ‘Vegetarian’ which went on to win the Booker prize for fiction. Deborah Smith had translated the book from Korean. While the book is still one of the most sold books, Deborah Smith has gone ahead to translate another book by the same author. ‘Human Acts’, this time, brings to us the reeking stench of civil war between its pages.

Someone has said: the country where children are happy is heaven on earth. Korea once upon a time was definitely not one.

Cover page

The cover page is one of the most stunning ones I have seen this year. The rib cage onto which the bird is sitting is definitely an eye catch. Ocher gives an illusion of happy whereas the rib cage runs a shiver down the soul.

‘Crown publishing’ is slowly climbing up to be one of my most loved publishing houses. See: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride.


There are multiple characters in the book but there is a constant ‘you’. ‘You’ is a fifteen-year-old boy who wants to participate in the civil war against the government but he is too young for the army. The story begins with the narration from ‘You’ and slowly moves on to his friend whose body is buried beneath a pile of several others. There is an editor, a prisoner of war, a factory girl and the boy’s mother.

All these characters have their own impacts from war. A boy just wants to be useful whereas his mother is unable to let go of the memories of her son. The prisoner shares his own experience of the war and all that he has lost because of it.

The characters are impactful. They are hard hitting with her their compose. No erupting volcano but just their compose.


It is a book about the ‘Gwangju Uprising’. The country at the time was a haven for political unrest where children and young men were out in a battle against their own government. Children as young as 12 years of age were being shot and the bodies were thrown on top of another to form a pile and burnt.

The massacre turned out to be not only brutish but inhuman.

No, none of us fired our guns.

None of us killed anybody.

Even when he soldiers stormed up the stairs and emerged toward us out of the darkness, none of our group fired their guns. It was impossible for them to pull the trigger knowing that a person would die if they did so. They were children. We had handed guns to children. Guns they were not capable of firing.

A platoon of children incapable of firing was razed to the ground within seconds.

Han Kang having lived in the country has seen the impact and the book translated by Deborah smith portrays a psychological picture which is going to be glued on to the blind spot forever.

The book begins with a boy trying to look on to a procession. It looks like a regular rainy day but it is hardly so. ‘The Boy’ is out looking for his friend and his sister when. Having searched at all the places he takes up work at the mortuary. He prepares the bodies for those who come to identify their relatives. The gory descriptions leave you a scar. The boy while working wonders ‘for how long does a soul linger near their body after death’.

‘The boy’s friend’ is death already, stuck beneath a pile of other death bodies. He wants to go looking for his friend. ‘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, it’s dozens of legs splayed put beneath it.’ The soul remembers his friends and the days gone by. And then he talks about mere bodies now. As bone chilling as this, this part is probably hit me the hardest.

There are other chapters which are grotesque too. An editor is slapped by a soldier to reveal the information that she has no idea about. She is trying to forget the slaps in her head whereas on the outside it a regular day for her. A prisoner is recollecting his memories from the war. And a mother is remembering her youngest child, wondering if the early death of her husband was a tragedy or a blessing for him.

The stories span several decades after the uprising portraying its impact on each individual.

The book in its entirety holds a good claim for the Booker too. It is not a war novel. It is a psychological ghoul which will follow you everywhere. This is a book that will change lives!


Surprisingly, unlike other Booker winners, Han Kang writes simple prose. Her language is utterly simple. Her craft lies in sentences where psychology and acute aloofness are intermingled.

Good points

I had not read any book on the uprising. It was a different topic to have read about. The cover page is hauntingly beautiful. The characters are exceptional. The content is stunning. The writing style is unlike anything else.

Bad points

The book is flawless.


‘Human Acts’ is by far the most beautiful book I have read this year.

Whom do I recommend this to

This book is for those who like good informative literature. Those who like diversity are going to like this book too.

Quotable quotes

What happens to the soul? How long does it linger by the side of its former home?

When a living person looks like a dead person, mightn’t the person’s soul also be there by its body’s side, looking down at its own face?

“Don’t you know how shocked I was when people said they’d seen you here? Good grief, all these corpses; aren’t you scared?”

“The soldiers are the scary ones,” you said with a half-smile. “What’s frightening about the dead?”

How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?

Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?

If I could escape the sight of our bodies, that festering flesh now fused into a single mass, like the rotting carcass of many legged monster. If I could sleep, truly sleep, not the flickering haze of wakefulness.

I was startled to discover an absence inside myself: the absence of fear. I remember feeling that it was alright to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…

We will make you realise how ridiculous it was, the lot of you waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.

If life was the summer that had just gone by, if life was a body sullied with sweat and bloody pus, clotted seconds that refused to pass, of life was a mouthful of sour bean sprouts hat only served to intensify the hunger pangs, then perhaps death would be like a clean brushstroke, erasing all such hinges in a single sweep.

We needed the national anthem for the same reason we needed the minute’s silence. To make the corpses we were singing over into something more than a butchered lumps of meat.

We mustn’t let ourselves become victims.

But I don’t have a map for whatever world lies beyond death.

How could I tell whether your father’s loosening grip on life was something I ought to pity, or to envy?

Veena Choudhary

An avid reader and history fanatic.

Mumbai, MH