In high school, I was particularly fond of a serious and attentive Latin teacher who never seemed disturbed by my reluctance to speak during class. Once, on the first day back to school after a break, this teacher showed up with gleaming eyes and a huge smile on her face, more exuberant than I’d ever seen her. Almost transformed. The reason for her present bliss, as she explained it, was that she had spent her break on a program for language scholars where everyone was required to speak Latin at all hours. She described the experience wistfully, as if she’d visited a place that had previously existed only in her dreams. Her voyage was less to a physical destination than a country of the imagination, made up of people who shared this private obsession with an outmoded tongue.
In her fourth novel to be translated from Korean to English, “Greek Lessons,” the International Booker Prize-winning writer Han Kang espouses a similar affinity for these territories of syntax and meaning; she also excels at capturing the ways in which they can be lonely and inaccessible. The novel faintly traces two lives that intersect in a classroom in Seoul: that of an ancient Greek teacher in his late thirties who is losing the last of his eyesight, and that of his student, a young mother who has recently lost her ability to speak (for the second time in her life), as well as a protracted custody battle over her son.
The teacher, whose story is told through first person letters and soliloquies, wields his words nostalgically, as if in an effort to preserve some small patch of sunlight that remains in his life. He writes with a murmur of desperation to a woman he once loved, and perhaps still does, taking special care to describe the visual aspects of memories that melt into fantasies: the faces of relatives, flowers blooming through cracked steps, the routes by which one travels home. They met when he was a teenager, shortly after his family moved from Korea to Germany where he was diagnosed with the creeping blindness that would gradually take hold over the next two decades. Many years later, he has moved back to his homeland.
The book is told in alternating perspectives, and the student’s chapters are written at a remove, in the third person. They reveal in subtle scenes of recollection and routine a heartsick person trying to access expression again, without her voice. What she longs to express isn’t feelings and ideas, but rather the sensuality of speech as it travels through the body. She marvels at how conversation “moves lungs and throat and tongue and lips, it vibrates the air as it flies to the listener.” For her, speaking is a mode of touch, or something “unbearably alive” in its own right.
Han is at her best when focusing on the physicality of language, and readers of her previous work, most notably her acclaimed novel “The Vegetarian,” will recognize her flair for depicting a kind of voluptuous disgust. Han writes of the first time the woman begins losing her ability to talk, at the age of sixteen: “The most agonizing thing was how horrifyingly distinct the words sounded when she opened her mouth and pushed them out one by one.”
Why, then, when the woman finds herself at a similar juncture as an adult, does it seem natural to enroll in a Classics course? Han does not entirely demystify the student’s reasoning, but we are told she has a “facility for language,” that she is undergoing these exercises “to reclaim language of her own volition,” that it is not the content of these ancient writings that interests but their internal structures. Lest any of her readers interpret the woman’s story blandly as a positive journey of self-discovery, Han also places her in the hands of an “earnest” therapist who mines her earliest memories and presents “lucid, beautiful conclusions” that spark no enthusiasm or belief in her patient.
More telling than therapy, though, are the ways in which Han leans on Greek philosophy to illuminate her characters. Plato’s writings are the subject of these titular Greek lessons, especially his investigations into ideal forms of which humans see only shadows. Han’s protagonists, each in their own ways, conceive of themselves as rummaging among the shadows of ideal writing and speech. The teacher, ever the melancholic, romanticizes ancient Greek as a pinnacle of language that has died, and toward which he is still vainly striving. The student is stymied by “language worn ragged over thousands of years … Language worn ragged over the course of her life, by her own tongue and pen.”
The prose Han deploys, at once evocative and elliptical, complements her characters’ inner torment and alienation. There is a sense of inevitability when at last the protagonists begin, touchingly, to communicate with one another, since they alone embody the ideas and predicaments of the text. Sometimes I wished the characters weren’t quite so ripe for metaphor; I wanted their lives to stand for less, and for them to exist more.
Omission is often a crafty device in this book, and a virtue throughout Han’s body of work. “Greek Lessons” which was originally published in Korea in 2011, demonstrates the breadth of Han’s writing style: It begins with the flat, gorgeous brushstrokes of narration reminiscent of “The Vegetarian,” and ends with the short, hermetic, prose poem-style meditations that predominate in her seventh novel, “The White Book.” (Han began her writing career as a poet.)
As “Greek Lessons” nears its conclusion, a silence spreads, at once captivating and distancing. Perhaps this silence is an effect of the protagonists growing closer, conversing in their own verbal and nonverbal language, shutting the reader out. Some lingual landscapes don’t mint invitations. The reluctance to speak does not disturb them.
Hannah Gold is a critic and fiction writer. Her most recent work has been published by Harper’s, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the Nation.
By Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won.
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