A novel for frightening times

Han Kang’s main theme is the dignity and the cowardice that atrocity brings forth from people—often the same person.

One week after Han Kang’s novel was published, the U.S. president threatened the city of Chicago with de facto military invasion, banned citizens of several Muslim countries from entering the country, ordered the CIA to resume torturing people, and was de­clared by his chief of staff to be the world’s only reliable source of information. Bad news comes so fast that I don’t have time to ask myself if I’m numb to it. I watch and rewatch the video of a fascist getting punched by a black bloc protester on inauguration day, nerving myself up for a kind of street violence that a year ago I’d have condemned out of hand. Forget about the self-absolving liberal cant phrase, “I no longer recognize my country.” Lately I don’t rec­ognize myself.

For these and other reasons, it’s a good time to be reading Kang’s brutally compelling book. The novel, written in seven long chapters, circles around a teenage boy, Dong-ho, murdered during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. But its cast of characters also includes a professor writing a study of the massacre, an editor, a playwright, a translator, and the novelist herself. Kang is already known in the United States for her superb 2009 novel The Vegetarian, which was published here last year. Both novels share a focus on violence. But while Yeong-hye, the heroine of The Vegetarian, is so repelled by brutality that she tries to make herself into a tree, the characters in Human Acts display a little more resilience.

The new novel’s theme is the dignity and the cowardice that atrocity brings forth from people—and often from the same person. Dong-ho, hours before his own honorable death, fails to rescue a doomed friend. The survivors of military prison, tortured beyond bearing, still fault themselves for little failures of resistance.