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Greek Lessons by Han Kang: a writer in transition

A woman has lost her ability to speak in this latest novel from the author of The Vegetarian

Greek Lessons
Greek Lessons
Author: Han Kang, Deborah Smith (Translator), Emily Yae Won (Translator)
ISBN-13: 978-0241600276
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Guideline Price: £16.99

It is a quirk of fiction in translation that a writer’s novels often appear in English in a different order to their original publication. In Korean, Greek Lessons was the follow-up to The Vegetarian – the novel that won Han Kang the International Booker Prize when it was later translated into English – and predated The White Book, her sparse, fragmentary meditation on grief. There are elements of both books in Greek Lessons, which also bears traces of Han Kang as a poet, with its emphasis on fleeting imagery and mood rather than conventional narrative structure. Unlike Han Kang’s previous novels, which were translated by Deborah Smith, this one is a co-translation with Emily Yae Won.

The central axis of the novel is the relationship between a thirtysomething woman who has lost her ability to speak, and the teacher in her Ancient Greek class, whose eyesight is failing towards blindness. The woman’s loss of speech follows the death of her mother and the loss of custody of her son; however, the novel looks to guide us away from psychosomatic explanations: “It couldn’t be that simple,” the character thinks to herself, as though for the reader’s benefit.

The male character is more accessible, given his chapters are written in first person and more practical than abstract. Having left Korea to work in Germany, there are hints of his own linguistic alienness and dislocation – Ancient Greek perhaps provides a neutral third option that is neither home nor away. The two characters are unnamed and their connection through a dead language further suggests that this book is as much a commentary on the limits of language – and the power of the silence that surrounds it – as it is about relationships.

This idea of a romantic connection being threaded through a narrow and disappearing sensory aperture is a poetic one, but is it enough to sustain a novel? Though Greek Lessons certainly has its merits, its central premise is not as strong or well realised as in The Vegetarian, nor is the sense of delicacy and mood as effectively expressed as in The White Book. This is perhaps a novel that captures a writer in transition – interesting in the context of her wider work, but not quite Han Kang at her peak.

Rónán Hession

Rónán Hession, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the author of Panenka and of Leonard and Hungry Paul