Greek Lessons by Han Kang

“The lit fuse of the chilly explosive primed in her heart is no more. The interior of her mouth is as empty as the veins through which the blood no longer flows, it is as empty as a lift shaft where the lift has ceased to operate.”

In a clinically detached prose Han Kang examines in exacting detail the experiences of two individuals whose ability to perceive the world and be able to express themselves, to interact with others, are impaired. Preoccupied with the notion and the reality of communication, perception, language, and sight these characters feel increasingly alienated from their everyday reality, unsure of themselves, their senses, and their bodies, and attempting to find a new way to occupy space, of navigating their world, by, in the case of the woman, distancing herself from that which was familiar, and, in the case of the man, retreating inward to recollect the past and to understand the origins and effects of his linguistic and cultural disconnect.
Unsparing and analytical, Greek Lessons is permeated by ambivalence. This atmosphere of unease and the characters’ aloofness succeed in making us feel a sense of estrangement from the text, which is compounded by the prose’s impersonal way of addressing the characters and how events that should carry some emotional impact are delivered and/or recounted in a distinctly dispassionate way. Kang places her characters under a microscope, zeroing in on momentary discomforts and sensations, be it a character’s dry lips or quivering eyelids. These close-ups are often uncomfortable, but they do succeed in conveying with precision the characters’ experiences. These coldly anatomical descriptions interrupt the characters’ introspections, which often amount to a lot of navel-gazing. Their preoccupation with the function and reality of a language, of linguistic barriers, of bilingualism, of ‘dead’ languages, of the way language and communication are necessary to navigate many spaces, and without it, one can find themselves on the margins, a passive spectator. The woman’s difficulties in conveying and articulating her thoughts and feelings definitely resonated with me. She is unwilling or avoids explaining her ‘loss’ of language, and there was something like resilience in her silence, in her choice to remain opaque. I was reminded of a Georgian film I watched a while back, My Happy Family, which revolves around a middle-aged woman who decides to leave her husband and family to live by herself and throughout the film refuses to explain her choice or back down from it. Here of course the circumstances of the woman are quite different, soon after the death of her mother the woman loses a drawn-out custody battle over her eight-year-old son. Severed from her son, grieving the loss of her mother, the woman, a professor, falls once again victim to a ‘malady’ that results in a loss of speech.

“Before she lost words—when she was still able to use them to write—she sometimes wished that her own expressions would more closely resemble inarticulacy: a moan or low cry. The sound of suffering through bated breath. Snarling. Humming in one’s half-sleep to pacify a child. Stifled laughter. The sound of two people’s lips pressing together, pulling apart.”

Yet, her loss of language cannot be easily ascribed to these losses. Feeling disconnected from Korean, the woman attempts to approach the language anew. To do so, she distances herself from her mother tongue and chooses to study a dead language, ancient Greek. These classes are taught by a man who grew up between Korea and Germany, and because of this has long felt not only a linguistic divide but a self-divide, perpetually longing to belong, to feel at ease. For years he has been gradually losing his sight, and so he finds himself questioning how he can retain independence, observing the world around him with regret and yearning. He writes letters to his sister, recounting his childhood experiences, from the shock of moving from Korea to Germany to the pressure to ‘assimilate’, and he also reflects on past friendships and loves.

“Even the occasional memorable event is soon erased without a trace under time’s huge, opaque mass.”

By switching between these two individuals Kang draws a parallel between their experiences and realities, as they both find themselves having to reevaluate new ways of perceiving and communicating with the world around them. There is, towards the end, a moment of kinship between the two, that felt startlingly poignant.

“Sunspots explode, without a sound, in the distance. Hearts and lips touch across a fault line, at once joined and eternally sundered.”

The narrative expounds on these two individuals’ theoretical and personal ruminations, mirroring and juxtaposing their experiences and perspectives. Their reflections on languages, spoken and unspoken ways of communication, expression and perception, memory, grief, and the body (the way they fail and change us), are rendered all the more lucid by the author’s unsparing style. Yet, despite how clinical and ascetic her style was, there are moments where Kang’s prose is elevated by an elegiac, lyrical even, use of language.

“If only she’d made a map of the route her tears used to take.”

Greek Lessons makes for a fascinating read. The two central characters remain slightly outside of our reach, despite the time we spend alongside them. The subject matter and language itself are the core of this novel, making it sure, intellectually and stylistically arresting but, except for a few moments, I felt not only at a remove but as if I was reading a textbook. I couldn’t help but compare this unfavourably to two favorites of mine, Whereabouts and All the Lovers in the Night (both novels also explore loneliness in women who assume the role of observer). Nevertheless, I do admire what Kang achieves in Greek Lessons and I found the ending to be quite rewarding.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
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some quotes:

My love for you wasn’t foolish, but I was; had my own innate foolishness made love itself foolish? Or is that I myself wasn’t at all that foolish, but love’s inherent foolishness awakened any foolishness latent in me and eventually smashed everything to pieces?

[T]here had once been a word that encapsulated both beauty and the sacred, without their having yet fallen away from each other, just as colour and clarity had formed one body within another word—the truth of this had never before been brought home to me with such vibrant intensity.

Whatever their motivation, those who study Greek share certain tendencies. They walk and talk slowly, for the most part, and don’t show much emotion (I guess this applies to me too). Perhaps because this language is a long-dead one and doesn’t allow for oral communication. Silence, shy hesitation and reactions of muted laughter slowly heat the air inside the classroom, and slowly cool it.

What a strange thing one’s flesh and blood is.
How strange are the ways that it brings us sorrow.

Ink overlays ink, memory overlays memory, bloodstain overlays bloodstain. Serenity over serenity, smile over smile, bears down.

Do you ever wonder at the strangeness of it?
That our bodies have eyelids and lips,
That they can at times be made to close from the outside,
and at other times to lock fast from within.

She knows that no single specific experience led to her loss of language.
Language worn ragged over thousands of years, from wear and tear by countless tongues and pens. Language worn ragged over the course of her life, by her own tongue and pen. Each time she tried to begin a sentence, she could feel her aged heart. Her patched and repatched, dried-up, expressionless heart. The more keenly she felt it, the more fiercely she clasped the words.


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