Greek Lessons by Han Kang review – loss forges an intimate connection

An elegant translation of the South Korean writer’s 2011 novel explores how a teacher losing his sight and a pupil losing her voice form a poetic bond

Greek Lessons is an extraordinary and dense novel that offers up new depths on each reading. It is short – 160 pages – which means you can read and reread it in a day if you want to. I have a soft spot for short novels – their intensity, their skill in delivering something sharp and true in a few breaths – but the bias is irrelevant because it does what all good novels do: it invites the reader into a world that reaches well beyond the confines of its pages.

Two characters – one male, one female – take turns to narrate scenes from their lives (the man in first person and the woman in third person). The woman is bereaved of her mother and processing the loss of her son to the custody of her ex-husband and is also experiencing the loss of her ability to speak; the man, similarly, is processing losing his connection to place and family, as well as the loss of his eyesight (an hereditary condition that will eventually blind him). The woman begins to attend lessons in ancient Greek taught at a private academy by the man (neither of them is named) and their meandering relationship begins to evolve.

I don’t think the book is about the characters, which is one of the reasons Kang chooses not to give them names, and it’s certainly not plot-driven either. What is steering the craft? One answer is that it’s language itself, and the dissolution of language, which is why in parts the narrative seems to almost dissolve (all those truncated passages and floating section markers). It’s hard to get a firm foothold:

“This place is a place
where it is difficult to take a step in any given direction.
All around has grown dark,
It is a place where it is difficult to find anything.”

We begin to understand what’s at play here and what a wonderful and courageous risk the writer has taken.

Greek Lessons is of course a translation. The original was published in Korean in 2011 and it’s a happy coincidence that what’s inevitably lost in translation – something always is – seems to underline the dissolution and transience of language (and lives) that Kang is exploring. In many ways, the language is poetic – metaphor is second nature to her; she manages to excavate ideas with very few words – and it’s not surprising to learn that Kang started out her publishing life as a poet. But it’s the formal technique she uses – of rendering meaning via form and vice versa – that reminds me most of poetry. By the end of the novel, I was struck by how powerfully she had used language and the failure/absence/collapse of language to make palpable the disorienting experience of grief: she doesn’t describe grief, but uses language and narrative form to embody it. What an achievement!

There are also similarities between the female character in Greek Lessons and Kang’s International Booker prize-winning novel The Vegetarian. The women are broken, furious, violated, overwhelmed and isolated. In Greek Lessons, the female character is “unsure if it was OK for her to exist in this world”, which is why the third-person point of view is so fitting: “She just didn’t like taking up space. Everyone occupies a certain amount of physical space according to their body mass, but voice travels far beyond that. She had no wish to disseminate herself.” All I can say is, thank goodness Han Kang’s literary voice takes up space in the world in the way her female characters struggle to.

Em Strang is a poet and author of the novel Quinn (Oneworld)

  • Greek Lessons by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won) is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Em Strang

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza – review
This outstanding debut novel about a tour guide in Buenos Aires already seems like an important work

Johanna Thomas-Corr

28, Jan, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor review – intense and inventive
A remarkable murder mystery set in horror and squalor

Anthony Cummins

25, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli review – between-the-lines horror
An atrocity by Israeli troops begins a sophisticated, oblique novel about empathy and the urge to right wrongs

Anthony Cummins

02, Jun, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Savages: The Wedding by Sabri Louatah review – sharp French political thriller
Tension mounts as the French prepare to elect their first Arab president…

Andrew Hussey

30, Jan, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Where You Come From by Saša Stanišić review – memory in the wake of war
Past and present are in a constant state of flux in the Bosnian-German writer’s third novel – part autofiction, part Choose Your Own Adventure

Stuart Evers

09, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
All Our Yesterdays; The Glass Pearls review – masterly wartime storytelling from Ginzburg and Pressburger
Reissues of novels by Natalia Ginzburg and Emeric Pressburger show off their skills at characterisation and narrative drive

John Self

14, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman review – one of the great novels of the 20th century
Grossman’s 1952 novel is a masterly requiem for the Soviets who died in the battle with Hitler’s Germany

Luke Harding

03, Jun, 2019 @6:01 AM

Article image
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge review – a rich and shocking tale of human traffickers
The Mexican author’s atmospheric novel is alive with Shakespearean echoes and grim humour

Eileen Battersby

25, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann review – a singular woman adrift
A new translation of the Austrian writer’s only novel reminds us of her profound and unusual talent

Nicci Gerrard

09, Jul, 2019 @5:59 AM

Article image
The White Book by Han Kang review – the fragility of life
The author of The Vegetarian has written a powerful autobiographical meditation on the life and death of a newborn sister

Deborah Levy

02, Nov, 2017 @7:30 AM