Greek Lessons by Han Kang

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Translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

It has been eight years now since Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian was published (reviewed here), and it put Han Kang straight on my list of must-read authors. The Vegetarian’s study of a woman who withdrew from societal expectations by refusing to eat, and of others’ reactions to her, was a visceral reading experience. Following that, we had Human Acts (reviewed here), a novel about the Gwangju Uprising that looked at the many small actions which make up even all-encompassing historical events. Then came The White Book, which counted the cost of imagining a life for someone who had lost theirs. 

What all of these books shared – what, for me, made Han’s work so powerful to read – was an intense evocation of the sensations and experiences of the body, of being. We have this again from a different angle in Greek Lessons, which was first published in Korean in 2011 (so it pre-dates Human Acts) and now appears in English, co-translated by Smith and Emily Yae Won.

This novel revolves above all around language and communication, with the physicality of those things very much in the foreground:

To her, there was no touch as instantaneous and intuitive as the gaze. It was close to being the only way of touching without touch.

Language, by comparison, is an infinitely more physical way to touch. It moves lungs and throat and tongue and lips, it vibrates the air as it flies to the listener. The tongue grows dry, saliva spatters, the lips crack.

The character referred to here is a woman who has lost the ability to speak after a series of traumas – the death of her mother, losing custody of her son – though she insists the explanation for why she’s lost her voice is not that simple. Perhaps she feels that way because language is so bound up with her physical sense of being:

Each time she tried to begin a sentence, she could feel her aged heart. Her patched and repatched, dried-up, expressionless heart. The more keenly she felt it, the more fiercely she clasped the words. Until all at once, her grip slackened. The filled fragments dropped to her feet. The saw-toothed cogs stopped turning.

Whatever the case, she is currently learning Ancient Greek in the hope that this unfamiliar, dense language (“A language as cold and hard as a pillar of ice,” as the book puts it) will help her find her own way back to speech. 

Han’s second protagonist is the woman’s tutor, who is experiencing his own loss, the loss of his sight. He comments that, though he might be expected to notice sounds first, what he really feels most is time: “I sense it as a slow, cruel current of enormous mass passing constantly through my body to gradually overcome me.” This is where his situation differs from the woman’s: he is living through a slow decline of his ability to perceive (and move easily through) the external world. Her loss is more acute, and held more tightly within. 

These differences are reflected in the narration of the two protagonists’ chapters. The woman’s sections are written in the third person: she is spoken about because she can’t speak herself. The tutor narrates in the first person, but not necessarily for the reader’s benefit – in various chapters, he addresses his sister, his late friend, or a girl he once knew when he lived in Germany. So he is broadcasting his thoughts, but not necessarily being heard. 

Ancient Greek functions as an anchor in these characters’ lives, its solidity lending them a sense of stability. For the woman, this is a language she can learn without needing to speak it. For the tutor, teaching it is something he can still do, that others can’t. 

Eventually the two characters come together, and find in the other something of what they needed. There’s an extended scene in which the tutor is speaking to the woman, while she observes and remembers. It’s a one-sided conversation, but there is a sense that both gain from it: he finally has an audience who can listen to him, and she has made a connection with another person, a connection that starts to shift the stasis within her. 

The writing of Greek Lessons then changes, becoming more fragmented. It’s as though the language has become more personal to the characters, carries a deeper meaning for them than may be apparent to the reader. This is a fitting end to a novel about the intimacy of language, that eventually it all becomes too much for words. 

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Han Kang, Greek Lessons (Hamish Hamilton, 2023). 978-0241600276, 240pp., hardback. 

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