'Greek Lessons' is an intimate, vulnerable portrayal of two lonely people
Few literary books this year are as highly anticipated as Greek Lessons, the latest novel by Han Kang to be translated into English. After Kang's Booker Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian and the follow-up novels Human Acts and The White Book, Kang has carved out an international reputation for doing unsettling, transgressive work that's as unpredictable as it is confrontational.
Greek Lessons will feel like a departure from Kang's previous English-translated novels. It's an intimate and vulnerable portrayal of two lonely, middle-aged characters who can't help but gravitate toward each other. The reading experience is like that of watching a quiet indie film that tugs little by little at your heartstrings until you're rendered speechless with both sadness and hope by the final pages.
In the novel, translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won, a woman who has lost her ability to speak chooses to take a class in Ancient Greek because she "wants to reclaim language of her own volition." Though she's mute, the woman is highly observant, exhibiting the characteristics of someone who has amplified acuity in her remaining senses. Her eye for detail is on display in this passage, when she's describing her language instructor:
"The man standing by the blackboard looks to be in his mid to late thirties. He is slight, with eyebrows like bold accents over his eyes and a deep groove at the base of his nose. A faint smile of restrained emotion plays around his mouth...The woman gazes up at the scar that runs in a slender pale curve from the edge of his left eyelid to the edge of his mouth. When she'd seen it in their first lesson, she'd thought of it as marking where tears had once flowed."
The instructor deals with his own disability. His sight is deteriorating, and full blindness is imminent. He faces a life lived in darkness, alone. "It's a common belief that blind or partially sighted people will pick up on sounds first and foremost, but that isn't the case with me," he narrates. "The first thing I perceive is time. I sense it as a slow, cruel current of enormous mass passing constantly through my body to gradually overcome me."
Divorced, the woman has lost custody of her 9-year-old son, a traumatic event that may have triggered a recurrence of her childhood speech anxiety. Though her son wants to live with her again, the woman's long-term muteness hinders her case for custody. Meanwhile, burdened by regret, the man narrates first-person chapters to his long-lost love, who he met as a teenager in Germany and who happens to be deaf. Their relationship had just begun when the man, then not much older than a boy, overstepped, proposing a lifelong commitment as a two disabled people, when she wasn't ready to accept her disability.
Slowly, inside that classroom in Seoul, the man and woman drift toward each other both physically and spiritually. Their romance is told entirely through the woman's glances and the man's sense of physical proximity to the woman. Their wordless interplay recalls the longing glances of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai's contemporary classic film In the Mood for Love. Kang writes:
"On Thursdays, when there is a Greek class, she packs her bag together a little earlier than she needs to...Even after she slips into the building's shadowed interior, her whole body is drenched in sweat for a while.
Once, she had just gone up to the first floor when she saw the Greek lecturer walking ahead of her...She held her breath so as not to make a sound. Having already sensed someone's presence, he turned to look back over his shoulder and smiled. It was a smile that mingled closeness, awkwardness and resignation, and made it clear that he had been about to greet her, then brought himself up short. Now it faded into an earnest expression, as if he were formally asking her to excuse his initial familiarity."
When the characters do finally come together and act upon their romantic feelings, it feels earned and cathartic. A woman who can't speak helps a language teacher who can't see. If this was the film Jerry Maguire, they'd say they complete each other. But Kang, of course, wouldn't stoop to such a cringeworthy, middlebrow notion. At one point, the man narrates that Plato himself knew "that there is no complete thing, ever. At least in this world." Plato might agree, however, that two damaged people finding solace in companionship qualifies as wondrous.
Though Greek Lessons might be different from Kang's bolder and horror-tinged works, the novel's hopeful and humane belief in the redemptive power of love might just be what our society needs.
Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets.
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