Tag Archives: translated fiction

life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant

murder and magic in Mexico

Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanada Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes

I wanted to read more translations this year, and starting out with a gutpunch like this has been both validation of that goal and further encouragement. Melchor’s first novel to appear in the English language and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Hurricane Season brings a whole lot to the table.

In the novel, the witch of La Matosa is dead. Evidence on the body points toward murder, prompting an investigation that reveals at every turn another layer of violence and trauma. The desperation of marginalized people in this small and unforgiving community breeds a self-perpetuating cycle of pain received and pain dealt- in this case, culminating in the untimely death of a social outcast who is, nonetheless, one of their own.

Trigger warnings are needed here for basically everything, from homophobia to bestiality to drug abuse to corporal punishment. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in this book. This is not a feel-good tale in any way, instead cloaked in horror and tragedy at every turn. But it is short- just over 200 pages- and if you can stomach the content, it’s well worth the read.

Divided into eight chapters that each bring a new perspective related in some way to the witch’s demise, the entire book is written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style with sentences that go on and on and paragraphs that seem never to end. But the first chapter, just two pages long, gives the reader an easy introduction to the style and proves just how effectively Melchor (and Hughes) can pull the reader into this tale; it’s fast paced and sharp, the run-ons coming across not as a slog to wade through but rather as a headfirst pitch down a steep slope, a motion that once started cannot be stopped until the inevitable crash at the bottom. Here’s a passage I liked, to give you a better feel for the narrative voice than I could ever possibly articulate:

“The fucking cat didn’t move an inch when Brando raised a leg as if to kick him; it didn’t even bat an eyelid, although from its closed mouth came a vicious hiss that made Brando step back and glance over at the table for another knife. And just then the lights in the kitchen and all over the house went out, and it dawned on Brando that this furious creature, this beast hissing in the darkness was the devil himself, the devil incarnate, the devil who’d been following him all those years, the devil who had finally come to carry him to hell, and he understood too that if he didn’t run, if he didn’t escape from the house that very instant he’d be trapped with that grim beast in the darkness forever, and he leaped toward the door, pulled aside the bar, and pushed with all his might, falling flat on his face on the hard ground in the yard with the demon still growling in his ears.”

There’s an air of mystery to it all as the narrative unearths the witch’s fate a kernel at a time from each of the tangential characters, but this is not a whodunnit. Rather, the community’s tendency toward superstition (evidenced in the quote above) and the novel’s very balanced use of rumor and magic both as a cultural tradition and a mechanism for social critique is what fans the flame of mysteriousness here and drives the story forward. The village really does seem to see the witch and her plants and potions as a source of magic- it is not entirely metaphor, though the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable that typically drives such superstitions is also at the root of other issues explored here- sexism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness. It all comes together to perfect effect, the setting intricately intertwined with these characters and the plot that plays out between them.

It’s masterfully done, each character as interesting as the last and none of them what you’d first assume; Melchor has an impressive talent for laying her characters out first as others see them, then peeling back the veil of bias to provide a fuller view. The narrative circles the witch’s death by opening each new perspective in medias res, circling through their pertinent backstory before coming back to the witch. For such a clever, convoluted structure it’s shockingly easy to follow the flow, and hard to put down at any point- this is a book best read in as few sittings as possible, and because it is so layered, I imagine it would make for great rereads as well. I know I’ll certainly want to pick it up again.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Hurricane Season felt to me simultaneously like a window to another world and a mirror through which I can glimpse a few dark truths that hit closer to home, all packed into one small package of searing prose. This is exactly how I wanted to start my reading year.

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight On: Translated Literature

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books. I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what translated literature means means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

What is Translated Lit?

This is a category rather than a genre. Translated literature is any fiction or nonfiction originally published in one language and then translated to another. Since English is my primary language, the translations I read (and thus the titles that will feature here) are editions now printed in English that originally came from… any other language. This is a personal limitation, not a boundary of translated literature, though I think English translations are among the most common.

Because this is a broader category, translated lit can fall into any genre, and indeed I’ve already mentioned some of the books highlighted below in other spotlight posts that focus more specifically on genre. I’m not sure whether literary fiction is actually the most often translated, or whether it’s simply the genre I’m most aware of in recent years and thus I’m a bit biased in that direction. Generally I think the books that are translated and the translated books most commonly read tend to be prestigious or popular in some way that makes them stand out; they’re linked to book prizes or selling particularly well in their original language, etc. But I don’t know enough about publishing politics to really comment on the process of what gets chosen or why.

My History with Translation

Inkheart (Inkworld, #1)

It was actually not until earlier this year that I realized one of my favorite series from childhood is actually a translation: the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, a fantasy in which fiction is brought to life as it is read. My recent realization here is a good example of why it’s important for translator names to be granted space on book covers- Bell must have put a lot of time and consideration into translating each of the three (long) books in this series, and I never would have known about her involvement if I hadn’t seen an offhand comment from someone with a sharper eye. Because translators are not always granted cover space and because I didn’t spare the time as a kid to investigate details like this, I honestly am not sure what other translated works I may have read unknowingly before adulthood. I think fairy tales especially are often translated.

I can’t specifically think of any other MG or YA books I’ve read that are translations. Even in adulthood, translations are a fairly recent interest and underrepresented in my reading life, unfortunately. The reason I’m now trying to actively increase my translation consumption is twofold- I want to learn more about the world, and I’ve learned more about publishing and privilege. I know books printed in English tend to have the upper hand in the kind of sales that allow an author to make a living solely from writing. I know that the amount of books that are translated into English is limited. I know that women authors, in particular, have been historically less likely to see their work translated, hence the establishment of WIT month – to celebrate women in translation throughout August and show publishers that there is a demand for women in translated literature.

Tender Is the Flesh

I try to make WIT a priority in August, though some years I manage more than others, and August isn’t the only time I read translations. My most recent translated read, in fact, is one I picked up in the spirit of WIT month- Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses. This is a brutal satire of factory farming and capitalism that shines a dark, cannibalistic light on modern society.

Translated Classics and Staples

Classics are a big facet of translated literature, and another of my main entrance points into reading translations. I was big on the Greeks and Romans for a while (aren’t we all at some point?) and got a good, proper start with translations in college by reading things like:

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by C. Day Lewis, the mythologized account of the foundation of Rome following the destruction of Troy.

The Erotic Poems by Ovid, translated by Peter Green, a self-explanatory collection of poetry focused on love.

The Poems of Catullus, translated by Peter Green, another collection of Roman poetry preoccupied with illicit love.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, translated (creatively) by Mary Jo Bang; this is an updated version of the classic story of Dante and Virgil’s descent into hell, in which Bang trades old allusions out for modern ones meant to give the contemporary reader the effect that the original would have had back in its own era.

The Iliad and the Odyssey

However, it was my more recent experience with The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler, that convinced me that translation style is really as crucial as the original content. It seems obvious, but it is important to keep in mind that languages can differ greatly- in grammar, in style, even in vocabulary. It is not always possible to do a direct word for word translation, and especially in poems and fiction prose, the way something is said can be as important as what is said. Translation is not a task that can be accomplished by anyone with a language-to-language dictionary, but requires particular artistic skill. Sometimes the best way to honor an original piece is to take a new approach in the format, or change words to achieve technical effects lost between one language and the next, etc. It took reading Butler’s very literal translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, which takes Homer’s epic poems and delivers a dry word-for-word prose in its place, to teach me how important the artistic element is to translation. This is also the reason that it can be worthwhile to read multiple translations of the same work- translators can produce very different results from the same source material, and generally speaking none of them are “wrong.”

Further Translation Recommendations

If you’re just getting started with translated lit and aren’t sure what to pick up, here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed, labelled with descriptors you might already be interested in:

If you like sad literary tales: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. This is a tragic coming of age story about a college student and the erratic girl he loves.

If you like learning about culture and history: The Vegetarian and Human Acts, both by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, are not to be missed. The former focuses on societal expectations and nonconformity as we see one woman adopt vegetarianism through the eyes of those around her; the latter tells a brutal tale of humanity’s violence as it recounts a deadly student uprising in 1980 Korea.

If you like magical elements: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. In this otherworldly tale, a secluded society stumbles onward as ordinary things disappear en masse around them.

Fever Dream

If you like short books that pack a punch, with a hint of puzzle to the plot: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. Here we have a family in crisis, the mother weaving in and out of reality as she tries to piece back together what has happened.

If you like modern classics about family, love, and identity: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, follows a young girl’s sexual awakening as she enters an affair with an older man in an attempt to escape her struggling family.

If you like murder mysteries, there are plenty of choices, as these are oft-translated from many different cultures: you can go for a fast-paced whodunnit in which a writer is the top suspect, as in Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant, translated from the Danish by Tara Chace; or you can dig into a police procedural with historic and societal commentary as in Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls translated from the Danish by Signe Rod Golly; or if you’re looking for something compelling but light with a fantastic character study try Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Fiction is clearly what I gravitate towards, but even the fiction reader can enjoy nonfiction pieces like Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. This is a small collection of essays about the responsibility of the artist, freedom, and perseverance.

Because this list is short and my own experience is limited, I’m going to link some other bloggers’ 2020 WIT posts and other related content to put some additional titles on your radar. These posts feature books I’m excited to read and/or learn more about, and all of these bloggers are worth a follow for more excellent translated lit (and other) content! This is a quick list mostly of posts I’ve read and enjoyed in August that I think contain a good variety of content and some further links, and it is not by any means exhaustive; if you have any WIT posts or other translation posts you’d like to add to the conversation, please link them in the comments below!

The Liar

Callum has rounded up a fresh list of WIT recommendations; he’s also been reviewing additional WIT titles all through August.

Rachel discusses WIT month, including the official readathon (now concluded, but keep this in mind for next year!) and some personal TBR picks.

Fatma has compiled a list of translations, focused specifically on Japan.

Naty sets a WIT month TBR.

Ren suggests translated nonfiction.

Diana creates and answers the prompts of the Translated Literature Book Tag. This post is from last year, but I’d love to see more answers to this tag and encourage you to join the fun if you haven’t yet!

Translations on my TBR:

So many! I’ve really liked most of the translated books I’ve read so far, and so a fair portion of my translated lit TBR is further work from authors I’ve already read, including titles like Han Kang’s The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith; Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft; Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, translated by Stephen Snyder; Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell.

Vita Nostra

I also want to read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, a staple that focuses on societal expectations, identity, and conformity. Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey, a Ukranian sci-fi/fantasy featuring a magic school; Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees, translated by Diane Oatley, a generational tale of beekeepers that investigates the relationship between humans and nature over time.

There are some translated books on my TBR for particular reasons as well, like Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth, and Mareike Lukas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, translated by Michele Hutchison- the last two Booker International winners. Thanks to 2020, I’ve also got Albert Camus’s The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, on my list. I have a few translations on my list that I’d like to read both the original and translated versions of in order to test my skill at languages I’ve studied in the past- Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, and Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney from the Old English. And of course, I pick up so many recommendations on the strength of reviews alone!

Why Read Translated Literature?

To expand one’s knowledge of the world. Reading directly from writers in countries foreign to you is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in new cultures and experience styles that may differ from what is common where you live. Narrative traditions and popular content can vary greatly, and experiencing those through translations is a great way to learn about people and their stories and storytelling methods from around the world.

The Emigrants (The Emigrants, #1)

But it isn’t always about branching out- thanks to translated literature, I was able last year to read a Swedish series about emigration that helped me better understand a piece of my own family history that might otherwise have remained nebulous for me. I read Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, translated from the Swedish by Gustaf Lannestock, to get a closer look at a story of immigration similar to my family’s past; if your family have ties to another place that is not very present in your life now, translated lit may be the answer that’ll bring you closer to another part of yourself, too.

It’s a way of bridging the gap. Of bringing people together. Of using the ways in which we are different to see also the ways in which we are the same.

Your Turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this category. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for translated lit, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about these books. That’s the point of this post! A genre or category can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! đŸ™‚

The Literary Elephant

Review: Tender is the Flesh

It’s August, and that means it’s WIT (Women in Translation) month! Since I have so many reading priorities on the go right now I’m not sure how many translations I’ll be able to get to in the next couple of weeks, but I’m off to a great start with Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses!

Before I get started… CWs for: cannibalism, dehumanization of marginalized persons, abuses of power (both personal and systemic), brutal deaths (animal and human), captivity, genetic modification, rape, and basically anything else horrible you can imagine one person doing to another. There’s absolutely no shame in skipping this review if the content isn’t for you!

tenderisthefleshIn the novel, a disease has supposedly rendered all animals lethal to humans- this means no more pets, no zoos, no stepping outside without an umbrella to fend off stray birds, and most significantly, a need for an alternative source of meat. Various vulnerable peoples are rounded up, and so begins the breeding of humans for the production of “special meat.” Our main character, an important man who keeps one of the big processing plants running smoothly, guides the reader through the new legal methods, all while dealing with a personal challenge: through no desire of his own, he is now the sole owner of a valuable specimen whose presence requires him to participate in this new societal scheme in ways that abhor him- at least initially.

” ‘I know that when I die somebody’s going to sell my flesh on the black market, one of my awful distant relatives. That’s why I smoke and drink, so I taste bitter and no one gets any pleasure out of my death… Today I’m the butcher, tomorrow I might be the cattle.’ He downs his wine and tells her he doesn’t understand, she has money and can ensure she’s not eaten when she dies, a lot of people do. She gives him a look of pity: ‘No one can be sure of anything.’ “

To call this book “dark” would be an understatement. I thought I was prepared, but there were still a few moments when I had to set the book aside and find relief in the fact that our reality has not reached this level of depravity… yet. Bazterrica does an incredibly convincing job of pointing out the ways in which our known world may already be heading in this (or an equally horrible) direction, grounding this premise in social, political, and environmental issues that are currently dividing opinions around the world. It’s a satire aimed at capitalism, factory farming, blind consumerism, and more. She also demonstrates that deft use of language (counting the victims as “head,” like cattle, and avoiding any terminology in the process or product that would render the eaten on an equal level with the eater) can be all that is needed to normalize today what seemed morally repugnant yesterday.

“The craving for meat is dangerous.”

In all transparency, I appreciated the intent of the novel a bit more than the execution. Bazterrica builds this world painstakingly, painting the image of a near-future dystopia that feels all the more real for its level of thorough detail. We learn here all the ins and outs of both one individual processing plant, as well as the greater societal changes that keep this world in business, and it truly is the stuff of nightmares. But the amount of actual plotting going on in these pages is minimal. Our main character, Marcos, often feels more like a writing tactic than a protagonist. We are told about his family’s past and his present circumstances; these do shape his decisions and explain his attitude, but important people in his life get only brief cameos on page, and even the problematic “head” on his premises is often relegated to the background while the narrative focuses on Marcos’s day-to-day tasks in the industry. The format reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Offred is primarily used as a tool to explain the workings of Gilead; so too is Marcos a rather bland character who serves best as a guide. (And so too is there a focus here on normalized violence against women, though general humanity is the deeper theme of this book.)

But, despite my finding Marcos a bit lacking, the setting he is able to reveal to the reader is more than enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the psychological change evident in Marcos through the brief plot is fascinating to watch as well. At first I wondered whether a more willing participant in this system than Marcos might have made for a better lead- it would have allowed for more nuance in the revelations of ulterior motives, and would have made this society all the more horrifying by demonstrating directly how quickly it has been rationalized. But as things progress with Marcos and the person-turned-product in his care, the reader gradually sees his actions and mentality shifting in a way that is all the more frightening for how disgusted he’d been at the book’s beginning. I don’t want to say more about the plot than that, other than it’s worth reading for if you’re willing to wade through the gruesome details.

The only other downside for me was some unaddressed and unnecessary poor treatment of women. Marcos apparently has very little regard for the female half of his species, and with no point being made through his behavior I found it distasteful. Perhaps his misogyny could have been used to further the theme of power abuse or to hint at a gap in his persistent morality that paves the way for the greater collapse in his beliefs of basic equality later on. If it was meant to be read in these ways, I didn’t find that to be clear in the text.

“It disturbs him that there’s something feminine beneath the brutal aura she takes great care to give off. There’s something admirable in her artificial indifference. There’s something about her he’d like to break.”

The writing itself I found to be a bit awkward in places, and I’m not sure whether it’s Bazterrica’s style I didn’t fully get on with or just a bit of flow lost in the translation; either way, style is subjective so perhaps this will work better for other readers, and even for me it was not a major obstacle.

In the end, though I would’ve liked a few minor changes, I was utterly captivated by what Tender is the Flesh does have to offer (repugnant as it may be), and for anyone intrigued by the synopsis I’d say this is indeed a great WIT title to pick up. I’d love to check out more work from Bazterrica in the future!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For content, this is probably the most disturbing book I’ve read all year, and it will be hard to top in that regard (not that I’ll make a point of trying). But I generally appreciate anything that succeeds in making me think and feel, and this book thoroughly succeeded on both counts even with the high level of horror and grotesquerie. I’ll be remembering this one for a long time.

Is this a book you’d ever consider reading?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Human Acts

Last year I read The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, which I found quite powerful and have been returning to often in thought ever since. This year (and just in time for the end of WIT month!) I picked up my second novel from this author/translator duo, Human Acts. Though quite a different work, I found it equally brilliant.

humanacts2In the novel, the events and impact of the Gwangju uprising in 1980 South Korea unfold in a sequence of interconnected vignettes. Dong-ho, a fifteen year-old boy, is the link that connects them all. After being caught in a violent government-sanctioned attack on civilians, the boy tries to take a more active stance in aiding the victims and fighting for justice. From here, the story leaps through the next three decades in an examination of the aftereffects of the riots.

“Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.”

This book is absolutely brutal. Though I found The Vegetarian psychologically disturbing (in the best way), Human Acts is a very different beast because it tackles a historic event. There is no way to dismiss the horrors that these characters describe- though the characters themselves are fictional- because these horrors are born not from the imagination but from reality. I knew nothing about Gwangju before reading this book, but now I am positive I will never forget about it.

“What had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no, even demanded such displays of brutality.”

What impressed me most about Human Acts is the way that Kang focuses the narration not on the grisly details of the uprising itself, but on the physical and mental affects that result from them. We are told about deaths and torture tactics, but instead of wasting space trying to convince readers of how awful these experiences are, she focuses instead on how the characters try or fail to cope with what they’ve been through- which somehow makes it all the more awful. For example, one chapter follows an ex- factory girl; a few sentences sum up the worst of the trauma she experienced after being arrested as part of a labor union, but the chapter revolves mainly around her attempts to visit an old factory friend and her incapability of sharing her own story. This was the section I found most moving, though each contains at least one gut-wrenching moment that leaves an impression.

Throughout the novel, there is much focus on the body, though Kang never lets the reader forget that the villains here are human too- there is an incredible and unsettling message evident that cruelty is as much a part of human nature as suffering. We hurt, and we are hurt. It’s devastating to think that this might be the human norm.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered- is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”

Something I liked a bit less is the use of frequent perspective shifts. Each chapter highlights a different character’s experience, and many of them are referenced in different ways, depending on the chapter. In the first section, we follow Dong-ho, who is addressed in the second person, as “you.” In the next section, we follow Dong-ho’s best friend, who is an “I” telling his story to Dong-ho’s “you.” The factory girl is also a “you” in her section, though other characters use the first person “I” or the third person “she/he.” I thought some of these POVs were more effective than others, and found the constant changes a bit tedious and confusing. Ultimately, I am not sure the effect was worth the effort.

But that’s a small complaint. Overall, I found this an engaging read full of unrelenting pain and haunting beauty. It’s a piece of world history worth knowing about; I’m sure I’ll remember the lesson, but I don’t think it will stay with me in quite the same manner that The Vgetarian will; while Human Acts opened my eyes to a real event and a deep level of human suffering, it seems to me a  self-contained story, speculations on human nature aside. The Vegetarian, though less grounded in history, struck me as an inventive masterpiece of fiction with more widely applicable themes. It’s difficult to say I “liked” either one better than the other, or would recommend one more highly than the other, as I think they are quite opposite pieces of work. Both entirely worth the read.

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

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I should have picked this book up sooner. I believe there is only one more Han Kang book translated into English so far, The White Book, which I’ve already added to my TBR. I want to read it right away, but also I’ll be sad to run out of new works to read from her- at least for now. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll get to my other WIT reads before the end of the month either, though I’m still planning to pick them up soon anyway; I need more translations in my life.

Have you read any of Han Kang’s work? Do you have a favorite?


The Literary Elephant