Nominated by:

Cape Breton Regional Library, Sydney, Canada

Los Angeles Public Library, USA

Publisher of nominated edition:

Portobello Books, UK

Random House, USA

Human Acts

Han Kang    

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

2018 Shortlist!

Judges’ comments

Based on the 1980 Gwangju massacres in South Korea and empathetically translated by Deborah Smith, Han Kang’s novel is a profound probing into the nature of being human, as one character asks: ‘Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? […].  Is the dignity we cling to nothing but self-delusion?’  It delves into the most intricate, sordid and imaginative permutations of human brutality: the gleeful and unconcerned shooting of unarmed civilians – including school children, the careless throwing of bodies into piles and setting them on fire – all in the name of the will to power.  It raises some old-age, but, persistent questions about the relationship between body and soul, especially in relation to burial rites, questions that take us back, among others, to Sophocles’ Antigone.  Against the ruthless dictator and his agents of destruction are ranged a variety of helpless civilians whose real weapon is a restless conscience and an undiminished selflessness.  Yet for all their courage, many lose their lives and, as for the survivors, their subsequent lives are indelibly marked by the horror of it all, reliving painful memories and suffering from the myriad effects of the traumatic events.  As expressed in a dirge in the text, this novel is a shrine to the dead, paying tribute to the difficult, costly, but, nevertheless necessary capacity for resistance which in the end justifies being human.

About the book

Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalized country searches for a voice.

About the author & translator

Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea and moved to Seoul at the age of ten. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her novels have won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Human Acts won the Manhae Literary Award. Her critically acclaimed novel The Vegetarian won the 2016 International Man Booker Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.

Deborah Smith’s translations from the Korean include two novels by Han Kang, The Vegetarian and Human Acts, and two by Bae Suah, A greater Music and Recitation. In 2015 Deborah completed a PhD at SOAD on contemporary Korean literature and founded Tilted Axis Press. In 2016 she won the Arts Foundation Award for Literary Translation.

Librarians’ comments

Using as her base the Gwangju uprising in 1980 in South Korea, the author in poetic detail lays bare the traumas suffered by a number of participants in the events. The experiences are quietly heartbreaking. The writing and translation are both superb.

This work of historical fiction looks back at South Korean history from 1979 through the 1980s, when there was a dictatorship and assassinations, torture, civil unrest, and the slaughter of protesters. Han Kang focuses on the infamous Gwangju uprising and personalizes the resulting events through the death of a young boy. By integrating personal stories (based on her family’s experiences) with historical details, Han Kang peals back layers of problems that have not been fully acknowledged or rectified with South Korean society and government. Although this novel’s setting is Soutn Korea, the problems of truth, justice and freedom are universal.

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