Does our spoken language ultimately enable expression or stifle it due to its inherent limitations?
This is the theoretical and practical question Han Kang’s protagonist—simply “the woman”—addresses in Greek Lessons. At forty, the woman—a teacher and single mother—has lost her voice for the second time since her teenage years. This time, the cost to her life is much greater: her ex-husband wins a protracted court battle to gain full custody of their eight-year-old son. The woman is voiceless to protest, metaphorically and literally. When her ex-husband makes plans for their son to leave Seoul and live with his sister, the child begs his mother to let him return to stay with her. She can’t answer, and she can’t console him.
In an attempt to regain her voice, she seeks the comfort and novelty of learning Ancient Greek, a language she’s entirely unfamiliar with. She wonders if the complex, alien symbols of the ancient written language—so distant from her own elusive mother tongue—will draw her voice up from where it is buried. In the Ancient Greek classroom, with only a handful of men—old and young—she takes comprehensive notes, watching the blackboard and the teacher intensely.
The woman’s story is delivered in chapters alongside her teacher’s. He, too, is unnamed and suffering his own sensory loss. Since childhood, his eyesight has been in gradual decline and increasingly, he is incapable of comfort in anywhere other than the highly familiar classroom and the well-traveled routes between home, shops and work. In his mysteriously mute student, he finds an unconfirmed, unspoken recognition of suffering and silence.
The chapters do not indicate which of the characters are narrating, and it is not as simple as single chapters alternately belonging to one character then the next. As readers, this structure entangles us in confusion and incoherence. By pushing through, we can decipher voices in the fog and frustration of trying to piece together which story belongs to which narrator, whose memories belong to whom. This confusion, sometimes irritatingly, mirrors the lack of clarity the protagonists are living with.
We learn that the teacher grew up between Korea and Germany, exposed to everyday racism and his mother’s extreme fear of making cultural missteps in their adopted city of Frankfurt. Her determination that the family must assimilate fully and more importantly, be perceived as fully compliant with white German norms of living, instills a deep anxiety in her son. In his university years, he returns to Korea to pursue teaching (he is one of the few East Asian students with a comprehensive mastery of Ancient Greek).
In the early chapters of Greek Lessons, I sought a clear-cut explanation for the woman's muteness. Surely, a traumatic episode from childhood or a neurological condition must be the cause, I thought. This was the inherent question and motivation that drove me to turn the pages. It was touch-and-go, since the language and the unusual, senseless sentences here and there lacked soul and coherence. Was it the inevitable clunkiness of translating Korean to English, I wondered? Or was this intentional—the author toying with her audience, as if saying: Look how oblique I can be! Look at the raw, open seams of my paragraphs, my sentences, and find the flaws in them. See how flimsy language is?
The woman’s psychiatrist suggests that the overwhelming trauma of losing both her mother and custody of her son in the weeks prior to losing her voice are a simple case of traumatic cause-and-effect. The woman picks up a pen and responds to him, “No. It isn’t as simple as that.”
Those familiar with Gwangju-born, Suyuri-rased Kang’s 2016 Man Booker International Prize winning novel The Vegetarian will find many thematic similarities in Greek Lessons. In The Vegetarian (the first work by a Korean author to be nominated for the award), a woman descends into mental illness owing to her family’s indifference and neglect. The sense of solitariness and a life lived largely in rumination, recollection, and avoiding repressed memories is a commonality in Kang’s characters between her novels and her poetry.
The woman is not Kang, but they share qualities and experiences. Kang, too, suffers a crippling health condition in the form of periodically recurring migraines. “If I was 100% healthy and energetic, I couldn't have become a writer,” she told the Guardian in 2017, upon the release of her autobiographical novel The White Book (translated by Deborah Smith).
Kang’s cleverness is in challenging readers to determine their own motivation for engaging with her novel, her characters, and their complicated, oftentimes confusing combination of dialogue and reflection. Is the problem in Kang’s use of language or the translation of her language from Korean to English, or is it the nature of language itself that creates division between what we are absorbing from the page and what we want from it?
In January, Kang told The New Yorker, “Language is like an arrow that always misses its target by a narrow margin, and is also something that delivers emotions and sensations that are capable of inflicting pain.”
It would be unfair to reveal to readers whether there is a neatly packaged ending in which the teacher and the woman pare back their memories and traumas to clearly pinpoint the cause of their failing senses. Greek Lessons, originally written in 2011 and newly translated for English readers by Smith and Emily Yae Won, bears a much greater resemblance in theme, nature, and attitude to Kang’s poetry. There are some stunning metaphors or descriptions that arrive unheralded and inflict a visceral sting to the heart. Take, for example, the description of our ordinary bodies that are linked, inextricably, to the cosmic world. “She cannot know that, afloat in the air she has breathed in every night since last spring, were infinitesimal luminous bodies, which have inadvertently entered her respiratory system and are still twinkling there…”
As the teacher comes to a sense of resignation and acceptance of losing his sight, something he has had his childhood and youth to contemplate and learn to live with, the woman exists in a constant battle of both loving and hating the Korean language, at once both familiar and transient in her body. As readers, we want her to regain her voice. That is the driving desire I felt with every turn of the page: an explanation for the woman’s muteness and her ability to regain her voice. Is the key to her ability to express herself, and to convey her pain and love for her son within the grammatical labyrinth of Ancient Greek symbols and sounds?
There is some resolution to be found by the final page, but the questions that linger for readers are not so final. That inexorable need to connect is both stymied by a lack of universal language and enabled by the systems of words and grammar we have learned and mastered to differing abilities. Just as the woman is filled with the twinkling, cosmic dust of the universe—embodying the entirety of the cosmos within her impermanent body—we, as readers, are forming an immeasurable and transient relationship with Kang and her characters. This is why we read. Greek Lessons may not leave readers with a greater understanding of the archaic language, but it will, hopefully, imbue us with a greater respect for the many ways we communicate beyond sound and noise, and how complicated and unifying it is to be fallibly human.