“I didn’t take any photographs. The sights were recorded only in my eyes. The sounds, smells and tactile sensations that a camera cannot capture in any case were impressed on my ears,
nose, face and hands. There was not yet a knife between me and the world, so at the time this
Greek Lessons, Han Kang’s 2011 Korean novel, recently translated into English by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, tells a story that challenges the normative role of language, exploring the possibilities of relationships forged by disparate experiences of loss and grief, plunging the reader into a liminal territory where language is not just cognitive but also sensory. Hauntingly akin to Martha Nussbaum’s framing of questions of ethics, kindness and inter-connectedness, Kang’s narrative centres on two seemingly nondescript people – an unnamed woman who has lost her ability to speak and is trying to reclaim speech by immersing herself in the unfamiliarity and rigours of Ancient Greek, and an unnamed man, her teacher, who is rapidly losing his sight owing to a degenerative genetic condition.
Sidestepping the ableist trap of a narrative applauding the overcoming of challenges posed by one or the other disability, the book turns into a study of alienation from the world, sometimes from the self, and the ways in which language, once freed from the rigidity of epistemic structures, can become a way of healing, and reconstructing the self. Like its protagonist who took no photographs, in complete contravention of this social milieu’s obsession with capturing and chronicling, the reader is nudged into setting aside conventional expectations and experiencing the text almost sensorially.
Readers familiar with Kang’s Booker-winning The Vegetarian (2016), will see shades of its heroine, Yeong-hye, in the unnamed woman of Greek Lessons. Yeong-hye’s husband described her as “completely unremarkable in every way”. She is plain and passive and easy to invisibilise. The woman studying Ancient Greek is similarly “neither young nor particularly beautiful.” She does not like taking up space and even before she loses speech, she is the quietest voice in the room, not allowing her voice to travel far, not allowing it to “disseminate her self”, fearful that she would lose herself if she used up too many words.
The loss of language
Language seems to have always been of particular importance to her. At age four, she had taught herself the Korean alphabet. At school, she would spend all her time reading. After college, she worked in publishing, and subsequently, as a lecturer of literature. She was a published poet, a columnist, and the founding member of a cultural magazine. Six months before the loss of speech, she lost her mother to a prolonged illness and soon after, lost custody of her son to her ex-husband. Her psychiatrist attributes her inability to speak to these two obviously traumatic events, but she is convinced that “it isn’t as simple as that”, that no single, specific experience led to her loss of language.
The silence she finds herself living had consumed her for the first time when she was 16. It was broken when, in the middle of a French lesson, a word leapt at her, forcibly dragging her back into spoken language. It is to prevent this loss of agency again that she decides to study Ancient Greek, to make its alien syntax, its phonemes, its play, bring her back to orality, but of her own volition this time. She experiences the loss of speech as a loss of words, fragmenting her reality: “The words evade her grasp. Words that have lost lips, words that have lost tongue and tooth-root, words that have lost throat and breath remain out of reach. Like unbodied apparitions, their forms elude touch.” Language for the woman is no longer only what is spoken or written, but a living, sensate and tactile thing, that changes how she occupies the world.
Kang’s overarching concern, in all four English translations of her novels published so far, seems to be with human fragility. Greek Lessons, with all its attention to language and meaning and the gaps that exist between the two, deftly negotiates grief and trauma, memory and recognition, love and loss. Her protagonists have suffered not just debilitating disabilities, but also deeply traumatic losses. The woman is caught in a dreadful, generational cycle of anxiety. She recalls having been told about her mother’s fears during her pregnancy and her having come close to not being born at all, generating within her a permanent anxiety about existing in a world that was unreceptive and often hostile to her. Her loss of words creates further ruptures in her already tenuous relationship with her child, breaking communication down, making impossible for him to read/translate her wordless love.
The immigrant’s inexorable push
The Greek teacher too, has lost love, has experienced the loss of home and alienation from all that was familiar, and is in the process of grieving the loss of his sight, potentially meaning the loss of all intellectual enquiry and delight that has been the driving force of his life. At the age of 15, he was made to leave South Korea for Germany, in the manner of many Korean and other East Asian families fleeing conflict and uncertainty in pursuit of a “better” life. Kang brings unstinting honesty to her exposition of the diasporic experience when she writes about the man’s mother’s refusal to politely smile at strangers in Germany: “I am done with smiling. I won’t do it anymore. Let me live as I want. I would rather not smile, at least not in my own home. But don’t mistake that for anger – I may not smile, but that doesn’t mean I’m angry.” Her discomfort is both cultural and visceral. It also clearly indicates the immigrant’s inexorable push and pull between fitting in and owning their truth.
Greek Lessons is by no stretch of the imagination an “easy” book, despite the slimness of its form. In keeping with the context of the Ancient Greek lessons the protagonists are brought together by, involving texts that would often delineate both philosophical and literary discussions of human problems, the book conflates the search for truth with the affective pleasure of literature, to become something of a treatise on the abrasive nature of trauma and the possibility of redemption in kindness and love.
Kang frees the sensory from intellectual underpinnings (and pretensions) to point towards a language that does not stultify with rules, but instead, celebrates flaws and departures from the ordinary. The concluding pages of the book are a testimony to the same. The story is told in the alternating perspectives of the man and the woman, often dipping into memories, in one particularly brilliant passage, becoming a dialogue between the spoken and the unspoken memories of its two protagonists. It shifts between the past and the present, sometimes turning inscrutable, but the slippages only privilege the transcendence of ideas and the deconstruction of the hierarchy between the intellectual and the sensorial. To borrow from Martha Nussbaum, “to try to grasp love intellectually is a way of not suffering, not loving- a practical rival, a stratagem of flight.” Han Kang, with her incredible gift, makes the reader sit with silence, and far more crucially, normalises perceived abnormalities, refusing to take flight from suffering.
Greek Lessons, Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House.