Books

Greek Lessons by Han Kang review: A luminous reflection on the difficulties of language

Han Kang's latest novel, Greek Lessons, is a meditation on the difficulties of language that asks existential questions about life and human suffering

Greek Lessons cover

Greek Lessons, by Han Kang – whose novel, The Vegetarian, won the International Booker in 2016 – is a luminous and aching meditation on the difficulties of language: how it speaks to mortality, dissolving ourselves in motion, but also its ability to cast our bonds to other people. The latest of Han’s various wonderful books to be translated into English, this slim novel is rendered gracefully by Kang’s established translator Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Wong from the original Korean. The narrative shines through poetic fragments, shifting alternately between the experiences of two unnamed figures, who mull upon existential questions, delving into philology as a conduit for their thinking. 

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Our first protagonist is a professor of Ancient Greek, who grew up between Korea and Germany. He examines his relationship to the visible world, as his sight is steadily fading. Using a second-person perspective, Han then introduces the vital character of the woman, who is grieving both her mother’s death and the absence of her young son. Unable to use her voice to communicate, the woman decides to study an “unfamiliar script” to articulate her thoughts. Through dreamlike encounters, Han considers how we might embrace the possibilities of our most ineffable desires – unfurling beyond bounds of time and grammar. This novel trembles with both the grief and liberation of refusing speech, as if the presence of our future deaths sits within our utterances. Han offers deep compassion for human suffering – signing with great tenderness, that another way of living is always possible, if we keep searching.

Annie Hayter is a writer and a poet

Greek Lessons book cover

Greek Lessons by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Wong is out on April 27 (Penguin, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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