by Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won
Hogarth, 192 pages, $26
In Greek Lessons, a new novel from Korean author Han Kang out in translation on April 18, a female protagonist—a poet and university lecturer known only as “the woman”—suffers a sudden and extreme loss of language, a condition that Kang deliciously and erotically probes with her trademark verse-like prose. The woman has recently lost her mother, who was abusive toward her, and she has also been defeated in a custody battle with a male partner that will soon mean the cruel and complete loss of her young child. Her psychiatrist considers her loss of speech the result of these traumas, but the woman, writing on a piece of paper, says: “No. It isn’t that simple.”
From her earliest childhood, the woman has been struck by the conviction that language is inherently violent, a hot-topic idea that Kang explores in the abstract, in a text whose conceptual framework runs from Plato to Borges. Language, according to Borges, is a sword with the power to separate, distinguish, and define. It cleaves items violently from the pre-linguistic mass. Words, in Kang’s own telling, echoing Borges, are “skewers” or “razors.” They are “flattened forms that resemble pinned-down bodies.” Sounds make “incisions” in the woman’s eardrums “like countless skate blades on ice.” And the woman wants no part of it. “Even when she could talk, she’d always been soft-spoken,” she tells us. “It wasn’t a matter of vocal cords or lung capacity. She just didn’t like taking up space.… She had no wish to disseminate herself.” The therapist believes that such hesitancy is a disorder, but for the woman, it’s just the opposite: an assertion of her values.
Kang is much too good a writer to be literal about it, but her work taps into the social and political problems of our day, including the individual’s responsibility toward others in a networked, interconnected society, and a meaningful individual response to larger structures of human evil. In her second and best-known novel, The Vegetarian, first published in English in 2016, protagonist Yeong-hye, traumatized by abusive relationships, forms the wish to renounce her humanity and become a plant, a process that begins with a sudden and extreme aversion to eating meat. The logic of the book suggests that Yeong-hye has chosen this radical form of nonviolence as a moral response to the terrible people around her. Her refusal to consume meat perhaps saves animal lives, but it’s also a symbolic act. Kang has said that the book’s original inspiration was taken from a line of poetry in protest against political violence. By extension then, Yeong-hye’s act can also be seen as a response to human awfulness of all kinds—if cruelty and atrocities are part of being human, she renounces it. By some metrics, Yeong-hye is disordered: She is eventually institutionalized, and she ends up attempting to exist on only sunlight and air. But by other standards, her transformation is meaningful and ecstatic, underlined by the fact that it appears to be sexually fulfilling. In a scene just before her gruesome death by starvation, she relates a dream to her sister: “I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on … I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, so I spread my legs, I spread them wide….” The sister envies her.
Greek Lessons mines a similar quarry. Like the woman from The Vegetarian, its protagonist has been abused by the people in her life, and she likewise renounces an activity seen as a human right in order to take an extreme stance of passivity. Somewhat like not eating, the silence is portrayed as glorious and empowering but is also acknowledged to be self-destructive, and the novel’s narrative begins with the woman’s struggle to regain her ability to speak. She is taking the titular lessons studying the language and literature of ancient Greece, since an earlier instance of mutism in her childhood had been resolved by exposure to a foreign language. Sections told from her close third-person point of view alternate with first-person sections narrated by an unidentified man who is slowly revealed to be the teacher of the Greek class. The man is going blind, and his narration is often addressed to people from his past, either as imaginary dialog or as letters. The people the man addresses are also mostly suffering physical or perceptual afflictions; one is deaf, the other chronically ill.
Together, the perceptual and physical conditions of the man, the woman, and the minor characters offer Kang the opportunity to probe our linkages to the world, slowly and in exquisite detail. Few writers working today are as original in both style and thinking, and the results are profoundly beautiful. By removing or diminishing faculties we take for granted, Kang magnifies their impact. All that is mild, muffled, small, and hesitant becomes significant. Gauze presses against a wound. A spoon dents soft tofu. “Silence, shy hesitation, and reactions of muted laughter” are said to “slowly heat the air inside the classroom, and slowly cool it.” A character’s inhalations and exhalations “stir the silence as boldly as the voice does.” The man and the woman, whose voices at first seem so isolated in their separate sections, eventually fall in love. The merging of these two broken souls becomes a swooningly romantic affair where each almost-nothing touch resonates, as they can in life but rarely do in literature.
The beauty of the work is just one way that Kang makes a case for her characters’ form of morality. The communication in Greek Lessons, which is accomplished in writing, or through glances, is portrayed as more adequate in its quietness than it would be spoken loudly. Moreover, the woman’s connection with the man is made possible because of the extreme gentleness with which he treats her. At one point, she remarks that even his gaze seems to humbly seek permission before touching her. Through this respectful treatment, she regains her ability to speak, though she does so only tentatively, tracing characters on his palm. Overall, this radically non-harmful style of communication is almost a new language—learning to speak it, I thought, was what the “Greek lessons” of the title referred to, a process the author appears to recommend.
In another sense, however, Kang’s ideas are queasy-making, and intentionally so. In one passage, the woman’s son declines an opportunity to play with a jump-rope because he is concerned the sounds he makes will disturb the worms and the snails. (The book was written years before Covid, but the stance seems familiar; many people among us think any burden on children is appropriate to prevent theoretical harm.) In another passage, the woman wishes she could communicate in pre-verbal expressions that “would more closely resemble inarticulacy: a moan or a low cry. The sound of suffering through bated breath. Snarling…. Stifled laughter.” If her speech hurts others, who is to say the loss would be too great?
Kang’s characters find freedom and fulfillment through their choices, though of a painful kind, and her work is so well-done that it’s difficult to argue with. In the face of the ecstasy of a woman standing on her hands and fantasizing that she has flowers growing out of her vagina, it seems churlish to point out that moans and cries aren’t as communicative as speech spoken at a volume other people can hear, or that children should play, or that starving yourself to death is not a victimless crime. Yet in some ways, her books feel like castles in the air, lovely, but founded on misapprehensions. Much of the characters’ extreme behavior is justified by a kind of anti-humanism. The author seems to believe that people, at least some of them, are fundamentally bad, and that it is the responsibility of other people to do something about them, if only symbolically. Kang offers no mitigation for her terrible husbands, cruel parents, and happy meat-eaters; they are one-dimensional. In Greek Lessons, they are hardly in the frame at all. This neat division of the world into pure oppressors and pure victims is distorting, and does its own kind of harm. If the stories of these human interactions had two sides—as all human interactions do—then the desperate measures might be less necessary. We might begin to view the characters’ behavior as something closer to the truth: chosen, violent, enjoyable even. And thus written not in a new language—but a very old one, indeed.