A Korean poet living in Seoul has stopped speaking. It’s not a protest, a neurological condition, or a conceptual artwork—the woman in question would like to speak but can’t. She visits a therapist, who asks about her childhood memories and recent dreams and twines them into an elegant hypothesis to explain her problem. “I understand how much you’ve suffered,” the therapist says. The woman knows, with “a serene certainty,” that the therapist is wrong; he doesn’t understand her. But who is going to help her now?
The woman who cannot speak is one of the two protagonists of Greek Lessons (Hogarth, Apr.), Han Kang’s latest novel, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won. The other is a teacher of ancient Greek—a man in his late 30s whose family relocated from South Korea to Germany when he was a child. After the man learns he is slowly losing his sight, he returns to Seoul. The woman enrolls in the ancient Greek course he teaches, hoping that the study of a language that’s entirely unfamiliar to her and doesn’t feel “worn ragged” by years of use will help her regain her speech. They move slowly toward each other in alternating chapters that describe their ascetic present-day lives, childhood recollections, poems, and letters—his story narrated in first person, hers in third.
Ancient Greek came to fascinate Han because of its grammar. In 2002, she had tea with a publisher who’d studied Greek philosophy. She asked him about the language, and he mentioned the concept of the middle voice; in Greek Lessons, the teacher explains that middle voice is used to express “an action that relates to the subject reflexively.”
The idea of a grammatical voice indicating that the subject is acting upon herself became the genesis of Greek Lessons. “I started picturing a single word in the moment before the big bang, which contained all of life’s meanings and feelings and sensations together,” Han says.
In the novel, a character wakes in horror from a dream of “one single word, bonded with a tremendous density and gravity,” she writes. “A language that would, the moment someone opened their mouth and pronounced it, explode and expand as all matter had at the universe’s beginning... a supremely self-sufficient language.” The prospect is chilling.
Han explains the story of Greek Lessons over Zoom on a winter day. It’s morning in Seoul, where she lives. In the novel, Seoul in summer is a city that smells of “things that had once been alive going bad.” That idea of going bad has something to do with her concerns about language; she dislikes it.
“Maybe because I started my writing with poetry, I always feel that language falls short—short of reaching anything,” Han says. “It’s like an arrow that flies but always fails to reach the target.”
Yet if language is a record of failure, as poets often lament, Greek Lessons suggests that its loss is no solution, either. Newly speechless, the woman also loses custody of her beloved son, whose father plans to send him abroad.
“The entire book,” Han says, “is a process of retrieving the first-person voice for this woman.” Language comes to seem imperfect but necessary; life is suffering—you can leave your country, love unrequitedly, lose a sense you value deeply—but no other kind of existence is possible.
Centered on one woman’s attempt to accomplish something existentially important, Greek Lessons is in some ways a thematic complement to Han’s other works, which tend to follow characters, often women, compelled to moral acts that people around them find unintelligible and threatening. The resulting conflicts are often violent, and characters not infrequently harm themselves.
Many Anglophone readers came to Han’s work through 2015’s The Vegetarian, a book about a woman named Yeong-hye who renounces meat, then eating in general, determined to live harmlessly, like a plant. Yeong-hye’s desire to exit a brutal system is met with brutality; the book’s scenes of hospital wards and forced feeding are frank and harrowing.
In a later novel, Human Acts, published in English in 2016 (both books, plus a third novel titled The White Book, were translated by Deborah Smith), Han describes the South Korean government’s repression of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising: the murders of protesters, including children; their decaying corpses; the casual torture of those who were arrested.
“I actually don’t like violence,” Han says. “But I want to be truthful. I don’t like very violent movies, but when I look into the depth of humans, when I look into the world, I cannot just look away. I feel that I should penetrate the raw truth of humans and the world, rather than enjoy or be fascinated by violence.”
In contrast to these works, the bloodiest scene of Greek Lessons is one in which the Greek teacher drops and breaks his glasses while trying to help a bird trapped inside a building. The novel describes powerful and painful emotional states, but it’s gentle in tone, closer to The White Book, in which a woman in a European city mourns a sister who died before the woman was born and ponders the individual and communal aftermath of tragic events.
“Before I wrote Greek Lessons and Human Acts,” Han says, “I read Sebald’s Austerlitz, and I was fascinated with his historical trauma and very personal insight.” For her, Greek Lessons offered consolation. “I wanted to touch a very tender and soft part of humans. Suddenly, a scene came to me where an index finger writes something on a palm to communicate. And the fingernails are so severely clipped back that the finger is incapable of harming anyone. I wanted to describe the process of coming closer and closer to this moment of infinitely tender touch.”
The characters’ search for consolation—through philosophy, psychiatry, poetry, linguistics—carries them beyond language, toward touch. Finally alone together, they are “at once joined and eternally sundered”—a description that would have pleased Rilke, who thought of love as two bordering solitudes. Neither one claims to understand the other: according to the structures of Greek Lessons, such a claim would necessarily be false. But like the Greek philosophers, Han is still intent on understanding something fundamental, and perhaps ineffable, about people.
“My next novel to be published in English, We Do Not Part, deals with another massacre in Korea,” she says. “And then I’m going to write another one. I’m not sure if it will be a very bright one, but I’m going in this direction, toward looking into something in humans that cannot be harmed or destroyed. Maybe in the end, if I live long, I can reach that part.”
Elina Alter is the translator of Alla Gorbunova’s It’s the End of the World, My Love; her translation of Oksana Vasyakina’s Wound will be published by Catapult in September.
Note: This article has been updated.