Greek Lessons 
by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won.
Hamish Hamilton, 146 pp., £16.99, April, 978 0 241 60027 6
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An unnamed​ man and woman come together, slowly and arduously, over the course of a novel. She is a poet who has turned mute; he is a language teacher going blind. Her first bout of muteness, which struck when she was a teenager, was cured suddenly in French class by a single word: ‘bibliothèque’. Now she is attending classes in Ancient Greek to see if something in the language can dislodge her mysterious impediment. ‘She is almost entirely uninterested in the literature of Homer, Plato and Herodotus, or the literature of the later period, written in demotic Greek, which her fellow students wish to read in the original.’ Her teacher, conversely, is very interested in philosophy and its cold comfort; he repeats a talismanic quote from Borges about Buddhism: ‘The world is an illusion, and living is dreaming. He sees things sub specie aeternitatis: ‘When reading Plato, one is able to appreciate the beauty of an ancient language that had arrived at its acme many thousands of years ago.’ Language for the woman is beyond control; for him, it is the only thing he can hold on to as the visual world slips away.

Who could fail to be intrigued by the possibility of love between these two negativities – gentle isolatos who suffer tribulations but will not settle for platitudes – sponsored by a language we can never truly know? The woman has stopped seeing her therapist because he was too quick to ascribe her muteness to two recent catastrophes: the death of her mother and a lost custody battle for her eight-year-old son. ‘It isn’t as simple as that,’ she writes on the paper she must use to communicate. At first, language was her gift: when she was six, ‘she ended up spending that entire afternoon in early spring squatting in the yard, preoccupied by thoughts of consonants and vowels.’ But language also leads a separate existence; in adolescence ‘the words she’d jotted down in the back of her diary wriggled about of their own volition to form unfamiliar sentences.’ When her son was learning to speak, ‘she had dreamed of a single word in which all human language was encompassed. It was a nightmare so vivid as to leave her back drenched in sweat.’

Readers of Han Kang will recognise that this hyper-intuitive woman bears a resemblance to Yeong-hye, the protagonist of The Vegetarian (2007), who makes a ruthless break with her husband, family and society, and ends up in a psychiatric facility. Just another anorexic? Madwoman? On-trend as too fragile to live, or bellwether of species extinction? It isn’t as simple as that. Yeong-hye’s transformation began with a dream, and from vegetarianism she progressed to the belief that she was metamorphosing into a plant and could live on light and water. The woman in Greek Lessons might indeed be suffering from unappeasable grief: she wears black and leads a monkish existence among her son’s Lego boxes. Or her aphasia could have some physical cause. But she can speak ‘from a place deeper than tongue and throat’.

As in The Vegetarian, the enigma of the female protagonist is preserved by the third-person narration, while her male counterpart makes free with his ‘I’. As the story toggles between the future lovers, we are held closer by the man, who is approaching forty, and reveals himself in a series of addresses – to an old flame, a lost friend and a sister. He has something of a split identity, partly because he lived with his parents in Germany for seventeen years before returning to Seoul alone. In Germany he fell desperately in love with a deaf girl (‘I knew you were simply trying to read my lips, but, even so, I was struck by a sudden desire to kiss you’), which was unrequited; at the same time, he could not return the love of a young man, also an invalid, with whom he engaged in impassioned philosophical dialogues. His capacity for ardour is clear even in this refusal: he remembers his friend, now dead, with aching tenderness. The more of his sight he loses, the more his heart swells with pathos for the world that is slipping out of view. Ironically for a man drawn to Plato, he is keen to observe particularities, to hoard sense data:

A teenage girl wearing earphones, her school skirt clumsily hitched up. A middle-aged man with a shabby tracksuit and paunch. A woman talking on her mobile whose stunning dress makes her look as though she’d just stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine … When people-watching and its attendant flights of fancy become tedious, I slowly walk up the path that leads to the mountain. The pale green trees undulate as a single mass, their flowers a riot of unbelievably beautiful colours.

By contrast, the woman prefers to walk around Seoul at night, among shadows and LED lights, passing dive bars and canals, crossing rubbish-strewn underpasses and eight-lane highways, trying to exhaust herself.

Ancient Greek is a puzzle – a language of lacunae, intricacies and ambiguities. It is also a locus amoenus, where lack is transfigured into potentia or fantasy. Virginia Woolf described this brilliantly in her essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’; there is so much we will never know, including basic pronunciation, and what exactly counted as humour. But ‘there is the compactness of expression. Shelley takes 21 words in English to translate thirteen words of Greek.’ There is the language’s primordial originality, and the fact that it is fundamentally untranslatable: ‘so clear, so hard, so intense, that to speak plainly yet fittingly without blurring the outline or clouding the depths, Greek is the only expression.’

Greek is also ‘the impersonal literature’, and this is what mediates between the woman’s flight from calamity and the man’s attraction to verities. He quotes the immaculate epigram ‘χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά’:

The beautiful is beautiful.
The beautiful is noble.
The beautiful is difficult.
It was possible for all three translations to be correct, because beauty, difficulty and nobleness were, for the Ancient Greeks, concepts not yet split apart.

For the woman, Greek is ‘a language as cold and hard as a pillar of ice … a supremely self-sufficient language’. That self-sufficiency is captured in a lesson on ‘a third voice’, neither active nor passive, ‘which we call the middle voice’, expressing ‘an action that relates to the subject reflexively’:

‘For example, using the verb “to buy” in the middle voice, “I buy X for myself” ultimately means “I have X.” The verb “to love” rendered in the middle voice, “X is loved,” ultimately means X affects me. There is an expression in English, “He killed himself,” right? Ancient Greek doesn’t need to say “himself” – if we use the middle voice, the same meaning can be expressed in a single word. Like this,’ the lecturer says, and writes on the blackboard: ἀπήγξατο.

The evasion of the binary active/passive voice is symbolic; the elision of ‘self’ strikes at the core of the woman’s paralysis. This is how authentic encounters with foreignness work: they contextualise our own strangeness and, in a paradoxical reversal, hold up a mirror. Keats’s negative capability is crucial to this process and, as a poet, the woman is already primed for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. Just as Keats could feel himself becoming the sparrow pecking in the gravel, when our protagonist ‘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’.

The story is propelled by antinomies. Here is a dead language, Greek, and there is the ‘unbearably alive’ Korean. Here is a philosopher, there a poet; one unrequited love, another love one cannot requite; a deaf woman who reads lips and a mute woman who writes with her fingertips. It feels geometrical: closer to Euclid’s Elements than to Plato’s Republic. Here are two points who are about to make a line, or two lines about to make an angle ‘which meet together, but are not in the same direction’. ‘A term or boundary is the extremity of any thing’; ‘a figure is that which is enclosed by one or more boundaries.’ The blind man and the mute woman: how can they negotiate this aporia, if she must be his eyes and he must be her voice?

While I was reading Greek Lessons, Cormac McCarthy died. All at once the violence of his novels, particularly Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, ceased to be controversial and became the very litmus test of genius. McCarthy claimed that ‘good’ writers ‘deal with issues of life and death’, pointedly excluding the likes of Henry James and Proust. By this standard Han has to be one of the good ones – though it’s hard to imagine McCarthy’s fans gravitating towards her. She, too, is preoccupied by the brutality of the natural world and the state (her novel Human Acts dramatises the 1980 Gwangju uprising and massacre, which took place when she was nine). But there is no bloodlust in it, no gaudiness, no irony. The violence is in the middle, not the active, voice. The Vegetarian is harrowing in its depiction of a woman who refuses the biological law of the food chain. The White Book (2016) meditates on the death of a premature newborn: Han’s own older sister, delivered alone by her 22-year-old mother in an isolated country hut. The baby lives for mere hours but haunts Han’s imagination (‘Don’t die. For god’s sake don’t die’).

The equivalent moment in Greek Lessons comes when the mute protagonist is told that her mother almost aborted her: ‘You came within an inch of not being born – and this accords with her always having been ‘soft-spoken … She just didn’t like taking up space.’ She has always questioned ‘whether she really had any claim to existence’. Such a tentative personality exists to be punished by the strong, and she is dealt the worst possible fate, the removal of her beloved child:

Because he was both the eldest grandson by the first-born son and the only male child on his father’s side, because he was not so very young anymore, because her ex-husband unswervingly maintained that she was too highly strung and that this was a bad influence on the boy – the records of the psychiatric treatment she’d received in her teens were presented as evidence – because her income, compared with her husband’s – he had recently been promoted to the bank’s head office – was both paltry and irregular, the hearing eventually resulted in a comprehensive defeat. Now, since even that meagre salary was no longer forthcoming, mounting a further case was impossible.

Not as colourful as McCarthy’s merry band of murderers, I grant, but this is the kind of violence that you can’t make up. And the fleeting portrait we get of the son – who doesn’t like skipping, worried he’ll disturb the snails and worms – suggests that he, too, will suffer deformations of the soul under the patrimonial roof.

The barbarity of the world order, for Han, needs no embellishment. Her mute woman can’t forget how, as a child, she watched her dog’s hindquarters flattened by a car, and when she caught up to him, he bit her savagely in his death throes. ‘The things not to be reconciled with were everywhere,’ she thinks in the climactic moment in which we realise why she can’t or won’t speak: language is complaisant, language is content with description, and description puts everything, good and bad, to bed.

The language teacher refuses ‘to obtain wisdom from suffering’. He nevertheless teaches Socrates’ pun on the near identical words ‘to suffer’ (παθεῖν) and ‘to learn’ (μαθεῖν), suggesting that while suffering does not necessarily teach anything, learning might still be suffering. In the end, he learns that the mute woman can spell out words on his skin, rather than trouble the atmosphere with the force of expelled air and sound waves. ‘To the hospital’ is the first thing she writes on his palm. It is only a short distance to their kiss, ‘a faultline, at once joined and eternally sundered’, just like a boundary in the Elements.

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