BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES — What if talking were like reaching into a vast abyss with no hope of a response? That’s how it is for South Korean author Han Kang’s mute protagonist in her latest English language release, Greek Lessons (2023).
Kang’s novel, both riveting and entirely unique—strange, even—presents us with a protagonist/narrator who has no name and no power of speech. Why? Because she finds the perpetual echo of the spoken word so terrifying that she has entirely lost her ability to speak. Unprocessed, repressed trauma manifests in creative and horrifying ways, taking away essential aspects of human communication. For our narrator, the simple idea of “arranging a word or two” induces a visceral response in which she can “taste bile at the back of her throat.”
Following the loss of her only child in a vicious custody battle, she decides to enroll in an ancient Greek language course. She reaches for any language that doesn’t resemble Korean, the one she knows best—the one that causes her the most pain. She prefers a dead language, one no longer spoken so that its echoes will be long forgotten and cannot wound her a second time.
How did this come to be? In therapy, we learn that she lost her speech due to a traumatic clash of events—her mother’s untimely death and the lost custody of her young son to a cruel ex-husband. In addition, as a child, she suffered from a stutter. Something in her brain isn’t right— of that, she’s certain. A rare neurological failure? The narrator herself puts it this way: She simply lacks “the passage that led to speech.”
Author Kang, the recipient of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her global hit The Vegetarian (2007), has a certain softness toward unconventional, socially unacceptable female characters. These female protagonists never cause a scene overtly. Rather, it’s their very nature that is unsettling. She’s different. She’s like a subtle ripple through society’s well-ironed surface.
Oddly, the ancient Greek language teacher is nearly totally blind, so he mirrors his student’s struggle. They have, then, their own way of communicating in their own language.
Consider this poetic, philosophic meditation on the human mind and all sensory challenges: “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?” These two characters—the mute student and the nearly blind teacher—dance around one another in an entirely nonlinear interpersonal tale, but one that, nonetheless, makes sense. Like disturbed koi fish in a placid pond.
Much of Kang’s novel reveals flashbacks of the severe trauma suffered by both. The reader must wonder: Should we, as humans, pay more attention to our trauma rather than repress it? Without awareness and recognition of our suffering, do we suffer more loss?
Kang’s point, it seems, is that Hangul, the written Korean alphabet system, helps these two characters in their quest for self-revelation—and that all languages can offer thoughtful insight into the human condition. But the silence between words is also telling. And so, poetry, with its palpable stillness that “falls between certain words,” helps us decode truths about ourselves. The silences in fact, “resemble speech” as resoundingly as any voice would.
Seasoned translator Deborah Smith (The Vegetarian, 2007) collaborated with Emily Yae Won on this English language translation. Their talents, together with the well-rendered cultural nuances of Hangul and the poetic cadence of Kang’s writing in Greek Lessons make for an extraordinary feat of storytelling—and a marvelous reading experience. Otherwise ineffable philosophical concepts that examine humanity’s hardest places to reach, customarily expressed only through the mastery of language, surface in the form of a deep literary meditation on nearly every page.
Kang’s novel reveals a spirit of rebellion. Its characters defy society’s deeply entrenched norms of communication—and they don’t even have names! To the teacher—if no one blessed with sight has ever really seen him, then who is the truly blind one? As for the student—if no one, not even her former husband, has ever heard her, why use words at all? The point: Readers are driven, then, to wonder repeatedly: what lies beyond the physical world? What am I not seeing? Who am I not hearing?
Greek Lessons is unquestionably rewarding. It’s hypnotic. If you don’t learn something fascinating about Platonic philosophy or the nature of language, you may just learn something profound about yourself and how you communicate in this world.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.