:: Article

Between Absence and Forgetting: A review of Human Acts by Han Kang

By Ryan Chang.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Han Kang, Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2016)

 Upon finishing Human Acts, the latest novel in English from Booker International Prize-winner Han Kang, I thought of a scene in Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence. The central character in the first section of the so-called recit, J., lies ill in bed at the cusp of death:

J. woke up without moving at all—that is, she looked at me. That look was very human: I don’t mean affectionate or kind, since it was neither; but it wasn’t cold or marked by the forces of this night. It seemed to understand me profoundly; this is why I found it friendly, though it was at the same time terribly sad. “Well” she said, “you’ve made a fine mess of things.”

Suffering from an unnamed illness, all J. wants is to die—which, as Blanchot describes for us in his essay ‘Literature and the Right to Death’, is her inalienable right—yet the narrator ruins her chances. In the essay, Blanchot takes issue with Sartre’s ‘What is Literature?’ because he offers a definition of literature that only perpetuates the primordial lie of language. The so-called committed work’s language is forced to “designate, demonstrate, order, refuse, interpolate, beg, insult, persuade, insinuate”. Sentences are then specialised and instrumentalised towards a specific end. The grave risk here is articulated a bit differently from Blanchot by Adorno: “The error of the primacy of [commitment] as it is exercised today appears clearly in the privilege accorded to tactics over everything else. The means have become autonomous to the extreme. Serving the ends without reflection, they have alienated themselves from them.”1 Committed literary works lose their object of action because they forget that language first murders, as Hegel might say, its referents in service to mere presence—mere sake of behaving politically. “When even genocide becomes cultural property in committed literature,” Adorno writes elsewhere, “it becomes easier to continue complying with the culture that [gives] rise to the murder.”2 In affect alone, atrocious experiences are straitjacketed into fixed meanings. These kinds of works imagine themselves as counteractive agents to the strategies of violence and domination that governments still practice today, literally murderous and not, and continually risk complicity with the very regimes of brutality themselves. Both Adorno’s and Blanchot’s responses to this literary affectation result in high-modernist works that, through a resistance to exaggerated forms of politicking, appear in reality as apolitical but offer a more political resistance by not participating in the “rigid coordinate system” of authoritarian systems. For both of these thinkers, it is not an author’s or text’s political orientation that is at most risk, but the problem of representation itself.

While Human Acts does not resist denotative meaning like Beckett’s The Unnameable, it sympathises with the question that Blanchot raises in his essay. When J. opens her eyes and seethes at the narrator, it is because he made her open her eyes and refused her right to death. This opens onto a question of place and action: Does the very act of writing itself violate this right to death, or does it constellate a map of the ways in which language attempts to fill the void it instantiates in the first place?

At the centre of Human Acts are the events of the Gwangju Uprising, a nine-day event in 1980 led by students from Jeonnam University in protest to then-President Chun Doo-hwan’s martial government. Hundreds died in the subsequent massacre. Human Acts is not committed to advancing an agenda, increasing awareness for its mere sake, or arguing for a changed model of political belonging; while it condemns violence, its fundamental question contemplates violence as something basic to humanity. As translator Deborah Smith notes in her introduction, the book’s central question is how humanity is capable of the “brutal and the tender, the base and the sublime”.

Human Acts is animated by the death of fifteen-year-old Dong-ho, who finds himself at the centre of the student-led resistance. Rendered in six episodes that begins with Dong-ho in 1980 and ends with the author in 2013, the reader witnesses six characters in the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising and the effects of their experience and participation as the silence of the event grows in the public sphere. Han positions each of the characters on the line between absence and forgetting, compelled to remember through their precarious proximities to an event that violated hundreds of people’s right to death. If human brutality and violence cannot be stopped or avoided, Human Acts asks, how can a person maintain her dignity—her right to death?

The novel opens thus: “‘Looks like rain,’ you mutter to yourself. … What’ll we do if it really chucks down?” This “you” is Dong-ho, a mere “middle-schooler” who finds himself taking care of newly-arrived corpses at the resistance’s outpost. He’s looking for his friend, Jeong-dae, who hasn’t returned home. He refuses to believe that Jeong-dae has been murdered, despite knowing better. The innocuous, banal observation of the weather becomes terrifying in just a few hundred words, when the scene opens onto a gymnasium overflowing with mutilated corpses, distraught grievers and overtaxed college students looking after the dead. We are meant to understand how innocence is re-contextualised into the sinister and the fatal not only by murder, but also by responses to it. Their idealism’s naïveté is unearthed by the staggering biological reality of death. Too, Dong-ho’s ordinary observation is echoed in the logistical realities of looking after these bodies, registered on paperwork: Who are they, how have they been killed and to whom do they belong? Dong-ho and his supervisors—Kim Eun-sook, Kim Jin-su and Lim Seon-ju, central characters in subsequent chapters—are preoccupied with logistical issues. They are forced to respond to the rote mass killing of innocent citizens with an equal amount of routine ritual and necessity.

Han Kang

These decaying bodies, stripped of their socio-cultural narratives, and the insufficient space in which to house them, are the pivot between two forms of human acts:

The anthem is over, but there seems to be some delay with the coffins. Perhaps there are just too many. The sound of wailing sobs is faintly audible amid the general commotion. The woman holding the microphone suggests they all sing ‘Arirang’ [a South Korean folk song] while they wait for the coffins to be got ready.

The necessity and seeming ineffectiveness of mourning ritual in the face of administered murder seems to be emphasised here. But what’s more important to notice is that the novel means to be read as its own act of mourning, not in the sense of giving voice to someone the author has never met (we learn that there is a historical Dong-ho on which the character is based), but a ritualistic return to the rights of death through bodies. As in The Vegetarian, Han circuits Dong-ho’s presence through the bodies of the other characters—remembrance is not only a linguistic/socio-cultural ritual, but a physical affect. Han metaphorises this through this chapter’s use of the second-person. Among the many technical moves to admire in Human Acts, this is perhaps my favourite: otherwise used as a cheap shortcut for immediacy, emotional profundity or a kitschy substitute for the first-person, the “You” in Han’s deft hands subtly foregrounds the act of composition of Dong-ho as a character. Like Blanchot, Han focuses our attention on the scene of literature itself, the transparent boundary between the literary and historical. Han points to the crucial interrogation of her own position as a writer making an artwork out of atrocity—what is composition relative to its material? What is absence? Forgetting? Witness? In Blanchot’s terms: How do I reckon with the abstracting force of language and the need to speak?

Language’s faculty as a mode of simultaneous concealment (or Hegelian murder) and presence is thus also characterised as a human act; the “You” becomes the perspective between first- and second-persons, of representation and recollection. The narrator here is, then, a kind of second- or even third-hand witness: She only has the traces of trauma—disseminated by the government and personal histories as second-hand testimonies—with which to mourn. Its spread engenders a national identity, but one that is characterised by silence, absence and forgetting.

Han’s “You” is the anchor of this story, towards which the subsequent chapters are constantly pulled. The tension inherent in identity formed in absence is interrogated in the second chapter, “The Boy’s Friend. 1980”, by exploring the tried-and-true themes of political trauma and the limits of witness. Amidst the grimly banal details of the military’s tactics of hiding the dead—a large pile of bodies “with their skulls crushed and cratered” stacked in the shape of a cross—Han makes metaphor out of the metaphorising forces of language itself through the ghostly figure of Jeong-dae. Stripped of their rights to their deaths, how do people maintain themselves in presence? This chapter is at the most risk of sentimentality: private moments of Jeong-dae with his sister, Jeong-mi, move the chapter forward to more compelling insights:

If I could escape the sight of our bodies, that festering flesh now fused into a single mass, like the rotting carcass of some many-legged monster. If I could sleep, truly sleep, not this flickering haze of wakefulness. If I could plunge headlong down to the floor of my pitch-dark consciousness.

If I could hide in dreams.

Or perhaps in memories.

We are indebted to Smith’s attentive ear for the tonal harmonies throughout the novel, but especially in this passage. The calm, detached tone uncannily moves into the horrific when Jeong-dae’s soul can intuit the presence of souls lingering near the “festering flesh” of the bodies, idling on the undercurrent of mourning and loss. Jeong-dae senses other souls because he is dead, but also because this liminal state isn’t exactly human. In another sense, this is the ideal metaphor for Han’s hermeneutics of presence: if the right to death is the ultimate referent for signifiers, its subjects, when wrested from their conceptual frame (language or, in the case of the victims, cultural interpellation) don’t disappear, but fade into a space between absence and forgetting. That the perspective of this chapter is the soul of Jeong-dae, caught between disappearance and presence, emphasises how much fiction—or, in Blanchotian terms, literary language—is involved in recollection and memory. Nothing we haven’t heard before, but the power of this chapter arrives once Jeong-dae realises that he—or his soul—will finally die via Dong-ho’s death. “I didn’t know where, I only knew that was what it was: the moment of your death. … I whirled up and up through the lightless sky.” There is no one left to look for him, and hence no more tether to the concrete world. The novel shifts focus from the event of the crime to its lacuna-like persistence. As we move forward, Dong-ho is found sparking in the darkened corners of the other characters’ memories and bodies.

A later chapter follows Eun-sook, now an assistant editor at a publisher, as she wrestles with living itself in the wake of so much death, and in the continued administered silences by government agents: “At four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the editor Kim Eun-sook received seven slaps to her right cheek.” She’s interrogated about the whereabouts of a translator whose work is a transgressive manuscript—a play—Eun-sook’s publisher will disseminate for public performance. Eun-sook attempts (and fails) to “forget” the slaps and move on; she is caught in the net of her memories. She wonders: “Now, how am I going to forget the first slap?” But which is the first slap? The ambiguities of event and consequence, absence and forgetting, normal and traumatic, and their persistence in a supposed era of calm, are the stage on which Eun-sook performs the appearance of living. We learn that violence hasn’t squirreled itself away for the next uprising or battle, but shrunken itself into the everyday fabric, against which Eun-sook struggles to forget. She notes the face of the interrogator is “utterly ordinary”, not unlike the young soldiers five years previous. Despite watching her peers and compatriots die, what has “tormented her for the past five years [is] that she could still feel hunger, still salivate at the sight of food”.

The irony here is that, despite herself, Eun-sook’s survivor’s guilt sustains her, finally delivering her to an embraced witness in the production of the play in rebellious protest to the censors’ edits. Men and women, dressed in “homespun” mourning clothing, leave the stage and move through the audience, silently mouthing the lines to which they are forbidden. “After you died I could not hold a funeral, / And so my life became a funeral.” We leave Eun-sook crying “scalding” tears, glaring “fiercely at the boy’s face, at the movement of his silenced lips”.

Han takes us through variations of this irony in the subsequent sections of the book; like Jeong-dae’s ghost, they are unwillingly pulled into living by the force of Dong-ho’s lingering absence in their psyches. Through the perspective of his cellmate, we’re told of Jin-su’s steady decline as he struggles to live after excruciating torture. All the grim details are supplied here, apparently in service to an academic researching the Gwangju Uprising. “So, tell me, professor, what answers do you have for me?” Similarly, Seon-ju can’t bring herself to record her story into a Dictaphone as her memories and guilt assault her. Again, the act of writing is emphasised. For Eun-sook, the play demands that she forego forgetting; for Jin-su and Seon-ju, their constant living in dread and despair, in response to an academic researching the Gwangju Uprising, finds no safe space. Han pressures these characters into necessity: they must remember, and that remembrance won’t be heroic, or tragic, or sentimental. It’s consequential. As one of the final moments in the penultimate section states: “Pretending that you were too strong for me, I let you pull me along.”

What is the difference between absence and forgetting? Absence suggests that something or someone should be present (and is not), that there will be no return (but, perhaps, there should be). Forgetting implies a return; if I’ve forgotten something, perhaps I can remember. There is no remembrance in absence, though sometimes, forgetting masquerades as absence until one trips over cobblestones or eats a madeleine. In the world of Human Acts, the only kind of absence here has been enforced, and thus should not have to be remembered in the first place.

In the epilogue, Han writes of the ways in which the public struggled to remember within a culture of enforced forgetting and absenting, how this absence spreads like a cancer: “Cells turn cancerous, life attacks itself.” This ongoingness of radioactivity suggests inexorable movement towards complete inhumanity, but also the static electrical current of Dong-ho and others like him. Sidestepping the question of whether or not these systems can change, Human Acts is nevertheless cohered by the affect that progress—whatever that might mean today—necessitates: hope. If Human Acts commences with the question of how humans are both capable of immense compassion and barely believable violence, it ends with only more questions. In a kind of echo of Adorno’s famous assertion, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”3, the stakes of Human Acts are not how books and remembrance can fix a wrong world for the sake of the right life, but the maintenance of dignity and compassion in the face of ever-increasing inhumanity. Is a good life possible? How do we do that—what does it look like? Never mind if it is possible—are we, as humans, willing?

1. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis.” Critical Models.
2. Adorno, “Commitment.”
3. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life.


Ryan Chang is a MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. His work has appeared in Tin House, Black Sun Lit,and elsewhere. He tweets as @avantbored.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 14th, 2016.