Human Acts


9781101906729_custom-09e6ad1e3217bac59bccfb1a0545714d4abc8f8b-s500-c85 I put off reading this book because I had heard that it was filled with brutality, but I was finally drawn to it because its Goodreads rating is 4.28. It was difficult reading, and I skimmed some of the more graphic violence. It’s very similar to many of the books I’ve read in the past year about man’s inhumanity to man. The difference however is that I cared more about the characters in the other books than these characters. From what I read in the introduction by the translator, Deborah Smith. “Born and raised in Gwangju, Han Kang’s personal connection to the subject matter  meant that putting this novel together was always going to be an extremely fraught and painful process. She is a writer who takes things deeply to heart, and was anxious that the translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalizing the sorrow and shame that her hometown was made to bear.” I’m trying not to feel shallow in my reaction to the book, but for me, it’s the emotional attachment to the characters that makes all of the historical horror urgent and intolerable, and meaningful.

On the other hand, Kang tackles a very important question in a thoughtful and sensitive way and that is, of all the variety of human acts that are performed daily, why are we as a species, so prone to brutality, cruelty and violence? I find it difficult to believe that the desire for power is the answer. And maybe I’m kidding myself, and that under the right circumstances I, too, could perform one of these heinous acts, but I don’t feel a connection to that at all.

An artist’s job is to report or illuminate all variety of “human acts,” with the goal of bearing witness and ultimately, change. But why is change so slow? Why can’t we as a country recognize and admit that racism is very much alive and well and embedded in our culture? How many more books need to be written until real change happens?

The book succeeds in raising important questions, and is just one more example of a world that is both beautiful and cruel.

THE BEAUTY: Since violence is the primary image that comes to mind when I think about this book, I needed to find something to completely counteract that. I first looked for pictures of beauty in the natural landscape, and they were abundant, but I kept coming back to images of the temples. What Buddhism represents is the antithesis of the cruelty described in the book. It’s interesting to think about the first precept,  “resolve to refrain from destroying living creatures.”

Gwangju Democracy Bell

THE FOOD: In a chapter called “The Prisoner, 1990,” the prisoner spots Kim Jin-su, whom he had known in prison. It was late at night and the prisoner was making his way home after a long night of drinking. Kim Jin-su, also drunk, was eating a bowl of hangover soup. It’s really a thing! Apparently, Koreans are known for their capacity to consume alcohol. They drink twice as much of their cheap rice wine (drink of choice) as Russians drink vodka. And, according to the article I read, Americans are lightweights in the drinking department, consuming way less per week than either the Russians or Koreans.

Hangover Soup 
Serves 4 to 6

2 heads of baby napa cabbage (about 1 pound each)
3 T of doenjang (soy bean paste)
2 T of gochugaru (chili paste)
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 T of soy sauce
1 T of sesame oil
¾ C of bean sprouts
½ C of sliced zucchini
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 Korean red chili pepper, thinly sliced
1 Anaheim chili pepper, thinly sliced
5 C of beef stock

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set it nearby. Blanch both whole cabbages for one minute, then drain and drop them into the ice water to stop the cooking. Drain and cut each into 2-inch pieces.

In a large bowl, combine the doenjang, gochugaru, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. Add the blanched cabbage, bean sprouts, zucchini, scallion and chile peppers and mix well. Allow to marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes.Transfer the contents of the mixing bowl back to the emptied blanching pot and add the stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower to a simmer for 10 minutes. Serve.


I could tell this might not be pleasing to my palate when I smelled the soy bean paste, and that, indeed, was the case. My husband wasn’t home when I finished making the soup, so he wanted to warm a bowl for himself later. When he smelled it, he decided against it. I think this is an acquired taste.

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