Awakened Connections

Han Kang, trans. Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, Greek Lessons

Hamish Hamilton, 160pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780241600276

reviewed by Megan Jones

Desire is an emotion Han Kang returns to in Greek Lessons, the fourth of her full-length works to be translated into English, following UK publications of Human Acts (2016), The White Book (2018) and the International Booker Prize-winning The Vegetarian (2015). In The Vegetarian, desire manifests as a yearning akin to starvation — the deprivation of meat, of sex, of sustenance. In her latest novel, it takes another form: loss. Greek Lessons returns readers to the metaphorical conceptualisation of desire as absence, as an emptiness within the body turned outwards, taking on a physicality that directs itself into the natural world.

Longing abounds in a Seoul classroom inhabited by two anonymous characters whose loves are torn from them by geographical space and death, illness and the law. An unnamed woman is silenced by the lost custody of her nine-year-old son and the death of her mother; a Greek lecturer contemplates his sight loss, a world away from the woman he once yearned for and the country in which he grew up.

Throughout this slender novel, there exists a permeating sense of grief. Each character embodies a loneliness so severe it wraps itself around each sentence and stretches into the white spaces between. Their abject pining for loves either unrequited or incompatible is aptly underpinned by the male narrator’s own contemplation of vision impairment: ‘When we take as true the premise that if something is lost, something else is gained, given that I lost you, what have I gained? What will I now gain through the loss of the visible world?’

This question is considered in several forms across the novel. For the woman attending Greek lessons, unable to form a single spoken syllable, deprivation is an opportunity to question language — its function and evolution. Here, Han is explicit in her deconstruction of human language as a communicative mechanism. The semantics of certain words are teased apart; phrases decoded and reframes; etymologies tugged at and explored in new ways. For its considered word choice, credit must be given to translators Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, yet throughout there is evidence of both the beauty and anguish of translation — from gesture to speech, from sight to thought, and from one language to another.
She just didn’t like taking up space. Everyone occupies a certain amount of physical space according to their body mass, but voice travels far beyond that. She had no wish to disseminate her self.

Han conceives language as the central entity around which human experience revolves. Language is self, and each utterance is therefore a kind of loss. This framing makes tender moments of intimacy between the female narrator and the Greek tutor all the more provoking. In sharing her forms of non-verbal communication, she proffers what she has been as yet unwilling to divulge: her very self.
While the female narrator debates the dissolution of self, the Greek tutor contemplates its abundance. At 15, he moved from Korea to Germany, where he spent the majority of his adult years. Upon his return at 32, he describes his life as one ‘cloven into two almost exact halves, split between two languages, two cultures.’ This duality of self is what he must reckon with once more as a heredity condition slowly renders him blind. Here, he is cleaved by sight loss: a division between what visibility remains to him, and what goes unseen. Through interactions with the female narrator he begins to notice minutiae beyond the visible. Subtle nuances — from small gestures and brief touches to a mutual, academic respect — that appear unsaid and unnoticed gain new significance as the similarities within their conflicting situations becomes more prevalent. Through sensory loss, the pair discover one another. The novel explores a desire for connection that traverses and transcends the boundaries of language.

Greek Lessons not only explores a narrator without speech but also, at times, without linguistic thought. From the opening pages, the female narrator ‘no longer thought in language. She moved without language and understood without language’. As the novel progresses, there are pauses — jumps in location or across time — in which passages denote events devoid of physical description. When viewing the world through the lens of a woman whose mind does not necessitate the transcription of sight into language, the reader is denied her experiences. She states:

The shards of memories shift and form patterns. Without particular context, without overall perspective or meaning. They scatter; suddenly, decisively, they come together. Like innumerable butterflies stilling the movement of their wings as one. Like unfeeling dancers who obscure their face.

It is this ultimate narrative loss that truly highlights the pervasive nature of language. Without words to name them, how can we quantify our experiences? What is reality, if not the means by which we share it? These are the questions Han invites us to consider.
The juxtaposition of movement and stillness in memory is emphasised by this same contrast within the events of the novel. The action in Greek Lessons is found within the smallest of motions. Like a stone flung into water, repercussions of brief, fleeting interactions undulate along the body of water that represents these characters’ lives. Childhood habits are revisited; a single question derails a relationship; generational sagas are reduced to single sentences.

Nights pass. Contemplations repeat. Lessons continue. Whilst it is possible to become fatigued by the characters’ own lethargy, each vignette builds itself steadily towards an inevitable meeting. This connection, when it occurs, is pivotal yet sparse. It is a masterful intertwining of narratives within a fractional moment of tenderness. However, there is little time to ruminate on their togetherness.

The narrator likens their relationship to ‘a Hanja word beginning with 呼, ho, by which people had referred to the half-light just after the sun sets and just before it rises. A word that means having to call out in a loud voice, as the person approaching from a distance is too far away to be recognised, to ask who they are.’ This definition encapsulates Greek Lessons: a fleeting, momentary callout, but one that never quite reaches the foreground. By the novel’s end, the characters’ relationship still eludes us. For them, dawn has not yet arrived, and it leaves us wanting. But perhaps this is the true accomplishment of Han’s work: to provoke within each reader that same sense of yearning.

Megan Jones 's fiction has appeared in publications including Reflex Fiction, Writers’ Forum, Litro Magazine, Seaside Gothic, and Bending Genres. In 2023, she was shortlisted for The Mairtín Crawford Award for Short Story and the Word Factory Northern Apprentice Award.