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 guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply