[REVIEW] Human Acts by Han Kang

hang

Hogarth Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

Can something be called a war crime, if there was no war? If a government truly wishes to obliterate the occurrence of a despicable act they committed, can they do so with only a well-placed bullet or torture or destruction of physical evidence? Or do they accidentally create something immortal – a memory of a person that is lodged in the minds of family and witnesses forever, like shrapnel that burrows into the body and aches in cold weather? These are the kinds of questions asked by the people in Han Kang’s newly translated book, Human Acts, which focuses on the connection between multiple people surrounding the death of a teenage boy during the South Korean “Gwangju Uprising” of 1980. It was during this time that a South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, was installed in power via a coup d’etat, declared martial law, and used lethal force against unarmed civilians and unspeakable torture on those deemed to be enemies of the state. Kang uses several perspectives in her writing to capture this snapshot in time, this all-too-recent authoritarian massacre, and the lasting effects on the people that survived it. Best known for her bestselling book, The Vegetarian, which examines the brutality in which gender roles can be enforced, Human Acts looks at another aspect in which humanity reveals its ugly, violent, primal nature – when those in power seek control, by any means necessary.

The books starts with a teenage boy, Dong-ho, searching for his friend in a gymnasium converted into a morgue. He is soon conscripted into service in the task of recording data about the corpses of those killed in the protests. In this way Kang begins a conversation repeated throughout the novel, the question of when exactly a soul leaves a body, what separates a human being from a rotting corpse, and how one can grapple with a person you once knew putrefying in front of you. During the course of his work, the banality of Dong-ho’s work – cataloging things like the height, gender, clothes, and shoe brand on the corpse – demonstrates the parallel with the banality of the evil that put them there, the indiscriminate and merciless killing of unarmed protesters, whose only crime was to intellectually oppose a government run by brutal thugs. Dong-ho hopes to find Jeong-dae and his disappeared sister, Jeong-mi, alive, despite the fact that he watched a bullet cut down Jeong-dae at the beginning of the protest. Without the confirmation of the physical body of his friend, he continues to engage in magical thinking, a way of coping with such a brutal loss at such a young age. As if in response to this, Kang begins the next section with the narrative of Jeong-dae’s spirit, still stuck to his rotting body as soldiers dump him and others in a field to be burned. Jeong-dae’s spirit mourns for the loss of his potential life, and seethes with the anger of his mindless execution. He meditates on the lives of the soldiers that killed him:

“I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.”

It’s not just the dead who ask these questions, but the living as well. One of the women working at the gymnasium, Eun-sook, sees things in Gwangju that attempt to normalize the landscape of the town. Specifically, the water fountain at the center square is turned back on again, which is the government’s subtle way of disregarding the sacrifice of the protesters. Instead of going along with this underhanded legitimization of the corrupt ruler, she complains to her town provincial office: “What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal. How can that be possible?” Eun-sook soon learns that in times of martial law and authoritarian control, even such benign protests can have serious repercussions. When working as an editor, she witnesses mass censorship of texts that disagree with the government, and she herself is viciously questioned and beaten in her connection to it. Kang finds beautiful ways in which to respond to these fascist tactics, such as when Eun-sook attends a play with the censored language that she worked on, only to find that the actors soundlessly mouth the forbidden words instead of actually speaking them. It is in this dialogue that a quote is made that reverberates for nearly every character in the book, a kind of elegy for those who survived this horror: “After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral.”

Human Acts has moments when it gorgeously exemplifies the spirit of dissent, and the characters who choose to stand, even when faced with death and torture. The mothers of children killed in the protest risk their own life to demonstrate at the president’s parade through Gwangju, thrown in jail again and again for the crime of their morning. The account of a prisoner who, though savaged by the guards and conditions of his political imprisonment, looks at his actions with pride rather than regret.

“I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.”

While such a triumph of hope is possible in the face of this dark time, the core focus of Human Acts is the remembrance of the pain of loss, which in itself is an act of dissonance against fascist revisionism. The last part of the book is Kang’s own account of her experience during the uprising, and of the later discovery of the story of Dong-ho, which moved her to write the book. After pouring over stacks of documents relating to the uprising and interviewing those that knew him, Kang finds herself haunted by what she has learned – she becomes plagued by nightmares of being bayoneted by soldiers, finding herself in dreamlike recreations of the situations these people had faced. Even at a friend’s wedding, surrounded by happy, well-dressed peers, she finds herself plagued by the survivor’s guilt that the research has inflicted on her. “How was such a scene possible, when so many people had died?” she asks herself, still shaken by the connection of the horrors her research has to reality. But she finds solace in the fact that “Human Acts” accomplishes the goal of any account of a crime against humanity seeks to achieve – the fact that these events, these people, these names are not forgotten or lost to history. To do so disrespects the memory of their sacrifice and the eternal ache of loss felt by their loved ones. Perhaps most timely is the lesson that the threat of fascism is not a distant nightmare, but a very real threat, waiting only for an ideal series of events to wedge its way into our lives and cause havoc once again. As such, we as readers must absorb the stories of these people and their lives, allowing their sacrifice to embolden our vigilance and our resolve.

 

[REVIEW] The Uncanny Reader, edited by Marjorie Sandor

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St Martin’s Griffin
576 pages, $21.99

 

Review by Dan Bradley

 

 

The hardest readers to shock and surprise are, perversely, voracious consumers and lovers of horror; we’ve read it all before. So with this new collection of 31 uncanny tales, refreshingly attentive to international and contemporary voices, can editor Marjorie Sandor revamp the strangeness and power of the uncanny for a new generation of readers?

The collection is inspired by the ‘haunted word’ itself. Sandor introduces the collection by tracking the etymology and semantic shadows cast by ‘uncanny’ and how its broad insinuations snake through languages and cultures, touching upon so many parts of our lives, enabling it to inspire such a wide ranging collection of tales ‘from the darkly obsessive to the subversively political, from the ghostly to the satirical.’ In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimlich’, commonly translated as ‘The Uncanny’, his catalogue of experiences capable of creating an uncanny sensation, which ‘speak to the uninvited exposure of something so long repressed… that we hardly recognize it as ours,’ could easily read as a template for the greatest horror art, fiction and cinema of the past century:

When something that should have remained hidden has come out in the open.
When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.
When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears inanimate.
When we see someone who looks like us—that is, our double.
The fear of being buried alive.
When we feel as if there is a foreign body inside our own. When we become foreign to ourselves.

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[REVIEW] Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman

dead

Prospect Park Books

344 pages, $19.99

 

Review by David S. Atkinson

 

Barbara confesses an odd thing to her sonographer when eighteen weeks pregnant with her daughter. She says she “prayed that God had spared a girl from landing in [her] womb.” That’s a pretty heavy way to start Washing the Dead, the debut novel by Michelle Brafman (a teacher at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program whose writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, the minnesota review, Blackbird, Slate, the Washington Post, and elsewhere). Regardless, knowing what I know now, it seems like a pretty apt place to begin.

Barbara is terrified about raising a girl because of her traumatic relationship with her mother. Her mother was loving, but could occasionally be inexplicably distant:

My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself. Even since last April, the mist had turned soupy, and I worried that we would both drown in it.

“Let’s do the last block fast, Mom.” If we moved quickly, we could outrun the fog.

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[REVIEW] The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

teeth

Coffee House Press

184 pp, $16.95

 

Reviewed by Leland Cheuk

 

In Valeria Luiselli’s first novel Faces In The Crowd, a promiscuous, melancholy mother loses herself so thoroughly while translating the work of a Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen that her narration slowly becomes that of the equally promiscuous, swashbuckling poet. In Luiselli’s funny new picaresque The Story of My Teeth, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez picks up where Owen left off. He too is a charismatic raconteur whose first-person narration simultaneously charms and cuckolds. Highway not-so-humbly describes himself as “the best auctioneer in the world.” He collects all kinds of objects, including the teeth of the famous. He claims to be wearing Marilyn Monroe’s choppers. He’s got a serious case of Napoleon Complex because he attributes many of his unusual aphorisms to Napoleon (I doubt the French emperor ever said “it wasn’t all velvet petals and marshmallow clouds”). As an auctioneer, Highway spins elliptical, impressionistic love letters about the objects he’s trying to sell. About Plato’s teeth, he says:

Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state…Significant flattening of the point leads to the supposition that the original owner, Mr. Plato, talked and ate continuously…Mr. Plato once made a comparison between the period of dentition and a man falling in love: “In this state, the soul enters into effervescence and irritation; and this soul, whose wings are just beginning to develop, can be compared to a child whose gums are inflamed and enervated by its first teeth.”

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[REVIEW] This Must Be The Place, by Sean H. Doyle

palce

Civil Coping Mechanisms

102 pages, $13.95

 

Review by Nicholas Rys

 

Sean H. Doyle is a seeker. His gasoline-soaked debut, This Must Be the Place, begins with a quote by legendary American Mystic, Edgar Cayce, “…at any time, in any world, a soul will give off through vibrations the story of itself and the condition in which it now exists.” Throughout the book, both parts at the end of that quote prove to be important, as Doyle summons up not only the vibrations of the story itself, but also the condition in which it now exists.

The book presented itself to me unusually. I was half drunk on a Thursday night and for some reason, eager to start something new. The explosive and deceptively playful cotton-candy-meets-Jackson-Pollock cover art was too loud to ignore, even strewn across my living room floor next to a handful of other 2015 books I had recently ordered. Despite my better efforts to call it quits after the first vignette. This is heavy stuff, I thought. I should wait until tomorrow. I read the first half in one feverish sitting. Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Girls of Usually, by Lori Horvitz

girls

Truman State University Press

238 pages, $16.95

 

Review by Erica Trabold

 

 

Lori Horvitz’s The Girls of Usually chronicles the most defining moments of the author’s life. From performing magic tricks to traveling the world to learning more about herself and her sexuality, thirty-two brief essays support a loose narrative that begins with Horvitz’s childhood and ends somewhere mid-life, a pause for reflection amidst a string of failed relationships.

Horvitz holds nothing back. On the page, her prose breathes contentment, curiosity, and energy— she is eager to share insights gained through personal experience, however unconventional her life may be. At the forefront, Horvitz addresses potential concerns about the scope of the project, which spans an entire lifetime. In an author’s note, she reminds readers that most scenes have been reconstructed to serve the book’s larger inquiry and essence. No transcripts exist to verify action, intent, or dialogue down to the very word. As is the case with most writers of nonfiction, Horvitz bases her exploration on the kinds of source material readers would expect, information gained through access to journals, personal interviews, and memory. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

fire

Picador

 

Review by Martha Anne Toll

 

I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.

Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.

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[REVIEW] The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last cover

Nan A. Talese

326 pages, $26.95

 

Review by Mary Akers

 

As a thirty-year fan of Margaret Atwood, I eagerly purchased the first few episodes of The Heart Goes Last back in 2012 at Byliner, a reader’s website, when the working title was “Positron” and Atwood was still figuring out what form the story would take. When it grew into a novel and the opportunity arose to review it, I jumped at the chance.

As the novel opens, Stan and Charmaine are down-on-their-luck newlyweds. They have lost their home, their jobs, and are living out of their “third-hand Honda,” doing their best to avoid gangs of marauding rust-belt thugs after a financial crisis leaves middle class citizens marooned in a sea of debt and desperation. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, edited by Clifford Garstang

Everywhere

Press 53

234 pages, $19.95

 

 

Review by Denton Loving

 

 

“You just don’t know who your enemies are. And your enemies are so often your friends, Molly. It will always be like this, I fear,” says Lana, the narrator of Alden Jones’ “Heathens,” one of twenty stories collected from twenty different authors from around the world and edited by Clifford Garstang in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet.

Lana is an American teaching in a village in Costa Rica. She is well loved by her students and the community, but in the story, she is caught up in teaching a lesson of a darker kind to Molly, a teenaged innocent visiting Costa Rica as part of a group of fly-by Evangelical missionaries.

Lana discovers that the world is dangerous, which is also Garstang’s first thought in his introduction to the collection. These diverse stories range from every continent, from toothless bikers in New Zealand to young women approaching adulthood in the Congo, from a boar attack in a German park to a suicide bomb in Israel. If these stories share a single theme, it is of this danger that permeates our human existence, regardless of our geographic location. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Witchita Stories, by Troy James Weaver

Witchita

Future Tense Books

200 pages, $12

 

Review by Ryan Werner

 

Previous general portrayal of the Midwest has been decidedly not-my-Midwest: Garrison Keillor’s rosy-cheeked shitheads and the good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose world of John Hughes. My Midwest is boredom and its trappings—drugs and sex and Tori Amos tapes—and as those ideas run through Troy James Weaver’s Witchita Stories, it does to Wichita, Kansas what Gummo did to sub-rural Ohio or what Alice Munro did to small town Canada. It shows how those not on the map survive without the map.

Opening jam “Summer” is the best of them all. It doesn’t go far, because nothing in town goes far. “My sister is sixteen and she’s already at that stage in life where she’s bringing over guys that look like Fonzie or Vanilla Ice.” That’s the first sentence, and I wish I had written it. I wish I had written the next part, too, about these guys and their bad music, their misappropriated styles. How the sister is distracted to a point of neglect and how hot it is outside and how you just won’t die one way or the other, won’t melt away in the heat and won’t freeze to death in counteracting it.

And that’s it. 329 words and maybe ten steps off the front porch, a walk into the kitchen to eat what your sister didn’t make you. Continue reading