Losing Language in Han Kang’s ‘Greek Lessons’

In the author's newly translated novel, an unnamed protagonist faces the limits and freedoms granted through speech

BY Laura McLean-Ferris in Books , Opinion | 12 APR 23

A woman leaves language. She has, quite suddenly, lost the ability to speak, yet the leaving keeps happening, the loss keeps happening, as she becomes increasingly unmoored from words themselves. In these new circumstances, she finds, instead, a way to burrow into experience without them. In one of many extraordinary passages in Han Kang’s 2011 novel Greek Lessons, newly translated into English by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, this departure is described as a form of ungluing, as words grow more distant from the woman’s body, their meanings now intangible:

Emotions that had saturated them,

like heavy layers of shadow,

like stench and nausea,

like something viscous, fall away.

Like tiles that, long under water, have lost their adhesiveness.

Those tiles – systemic, hard and modular – float away. On occasion, Kang writes as though such a mode of existence might bring us closer to the physical world, as if an interior quietude might enable us to experience life without the filter that language and articulated thoughts provide: ‘sometimes she thinks of herself as more like some form of substance, a moving solid or liquid, than like a person’, Kang writes of the woman. ‘When she eats hot rice, she feels that she herself becomes that rice, and when she washes her face with cold water there is no distinction between her and that water.’ This immediacy reminds me of the poems that Fernando Pessoa wrote as Alberto Caeiro, the shepherd (one of his many heteronyms), an invented character with an intense, almost innocent proximity to his rural environment. ‘The world wasn’t made for us to think about it,’ wrote Pessoa as Caeiro in ‘The Keeper of Sheep II’ (1914), ‘(Thinking is a sickness of the eyes) / But for us to look at it and to be at one.’

Han Kang, Greek Lessons, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

Kang is perhaps best known for another novel of exit and refusal, The Vegetarian (2007), winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, in which a woman named Yeong-hye wakes one morning after a dream and decides to never eat meat again, to the fury of her husband and family. But Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is only the beginning of the deeper transformation to which she aspires. She slowly adopts the life of a plant, baring her body to the sunlight in order to photosynthesize, and eventually refusing all food. Receding into a slim spectrum of being where she cannot be reached, she finally desires only to connect with the soil. Though the two books have shared concerns, the sensual, botanical and earthbound register of The Vegetarian contrasts with Greek Lessons as summer does winter: the latter is a crystalline, cerebral work of an icier temperature.

Unlike Yeong-hye, the unnamed woman at the heart of Greek Lessons understands that this new shift in consciousness might have terrible, lasting consequences, aggravating some already difficult circumstances: she has just lost custody of her eight-year-old son and becoming unable to teach will mean losing her sole source of income. She thus resolves to try and mend her broken linguistic fuse by beginning Ancient Greek lessons. A teenage bout of unexpected silence came to a surprising end in a French lesson, when the word bibliothèque suddenly erupted from her mouth. Learning an ancient language, she hopes, might locate and revive her ability to speak, a skill that seems buried in an even deeper and more inaccessible part of her brain than it was the first time. Ancient Greek appeals because it is completely unlike her native Korean, and has shades of the dense language that appears in her nightmares: a ‘single word in which all human language was encompassed’, which she images as an ‘ice-cold explosive’. The dead language’s elaborate grammatical structure, her teacher explains, makes it a condensed form, so that speaker, tense and situation can be encapsulated into a single word, which can contain a multitude of meanings.

Interspersed among descriptions of the woman’s experiences are episodes narrated in the first person – sometimes letters, sometimes memories – which we eventually attribute to the Ancient Greek teacher, a man who has moved between Germany and Korea throughout his life and who has been slowly losing his sight. This puts him in a perpetual state of departure, taking in everything he can see as though for the last time, in the kind of long goodbye to the world that might belong to all of us in the 21st century, or to everyone preoccupied with a sense of their own mortality. The teacher’s verbosity, his writing of missives to loved ones from his past and his conspicuous ‘I’ compose a movement in the opposite direction from that of the woman. His incessant speaking and writing seem to be powered by a struggle against his fading vision, yet narration also allows him to build a world that he can live in without sight.

Han Kang attends the Man Booker International Prize, 2016. Courtesy: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

How should we read these retreats, refusals and losses in Kang’s work? While her characters’ transformations can sound formulaic in description, her beautiful writing delineates complex shifts in consciousness. These often have a passive, feminized valence (becoming a plant, becoming silent), but they also offer a new attachment to the Earth’s tissues. Is it our over-coded, information-heavy existence that makes retreat desirable? Is it today’s particular forms of existential trauma? Perhaps it is an enmeshment of both, forging what is described in Greek Lesson’s first pages as ‘a knife between me and the world’.

In fact, it is touch that brings about the novel’s late thawing, and which offers a way out of its frozen universe, where words are characterized like falling ribbons of dark water. A sentence appears in the Greek teacher’s mind: ‘If snow is the silence that falls from the sky, perhaps rain is an endless sentence.’ Spilling, soaking and dripping, messily, words are the incredible and imperfect system that we have developed to communicate. A line from the poet Madeline Gins’s book Word Rain (1969) occurs to me here – another writer preoccupied with the spectacular interruptions that language and cybernetics have wrought on the world – ‘The saddest thing is that I have had to use words.’

Han Kang’s Greek Lessons is published by Hogarth.

Main image: Han Kang portrait, 2023. Courtesy: Paik Dahuim

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in Turin, Italy. Her work has appeared in publications including 4Columns, Artforum, ArtReview, Flash Art and Mousse.