Nothing much happens in Han Kang’s novel Greek Lessons, but the author’s artistry is such that you keep on reading, whether for the beautiful writing or for the beautiful pain of the strange couple at the story’s core.
First published in South Korea in 2011 and set mostly in Seoul, Greek Lessons is the story of two damaged people. One is a man, a professor of ancient Greek who is slowly losing his vision. The other is a woman taking his class. She’s a writer and former teacher who has either abandoned her power of speech or whose speech has left her; she recalls Liv Ullmann’s character in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona, an actor who suddenly goes mute in the middle of a performance and decides to stay that way.
Near-blindness and muteness seem to be physical manifestations of Kang’s characters’ excruciating loneliness. At the end of the day, each goes home to nearly empty apartments on nearly empty streets. The relationships they do have with other people are fraught. The woman is divorced. Her ex-husband thinks she’s “too highly strung and that this was a bad influence” on their son, so she lost custody of the boy. The Greek professor lived much of his earlier life in Germany, where he and his family stood out and were sometimes discriminated against for being East Asian.
“Why ancient Greek?” a reader might ask. The woman tells herself she’s studying it because it’s so different from Korean that it might help her reclaim language itself; ancient Greek lacks the traumatic baggage that caused her to go silent in the first place. Still, her speech does not return. She is so speechless that her teacher starts to believe she is deaf as well as mute.
Then, one night the man breaks his glasses. Helpless without them, he needs an emergency optician. The woman can help.
Beautifully translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, Greek Lessons conjures a mood that calls to mind the Korean word ho, which is that time just after the sun sets and just before it rises. To go Bergmanesque again, it’s the hour of the wolf, when people experience the most anguish. Though the woman and her teacher are full of sorrow, their sadness doesn’t stop them from appreciating and even seeking small moments of beauty. This gives Kang’s slender book much of its power.