- onNovember 10, 2014
- Vol.15 Spring 2012
- byHan Kang
- Greek Lessons
The woman brings her hands together in front of her chest. She wrinkles her forehead and looks up at the blackboard.
“Now, read it aloud.”
A man, with a smile playing on his lips, says to the woman. He is wearing a thick pair of silver-rimmed glasses.
The woman’s lips quiver. She licks her bottom lip with the tip of her tongue. Her hands fidget nervously but quietly in front of her. She parts her mouth momentarily, then closes it. She holds her breath, then inhales deeply. As if to say that he will wait patiently for her, the man takes a step away from her and towards the blackboard.
The woman’s eyelids shudder. Like layers of insect wings rubbing furiously against one another. She shuts her eyes tightly, expecting to be transported to a new place when she opens them again.
With fingers deeply imprinted with chalk, the man repositions his glasses.
“Go ahead. Read.”
The woman wears a black turtleneck sweater with black pants. Her coat draped across the chair is also black, as is the knitted scarf that rests in her large black canvas bag. Looking as if she had just walked out of a funeral, her gaunt face hovers above her black outfit. Her skin is coarse. She looks like a human clay sculpture that had been stretched out to look more emaciated.
The woman is neither young nor beautiful. There is a twinkle in her eyes, but because her eyelids never cease to twitch, their glimmer is barely noticeable. Her shoulders and her back are hunched over, as if she is escaping from the world into the darkness of her clothing, and her nails are cut painfully short. On her left wrist is a velvet maroon hair elastic – the only thing on the woman’s body with any color.
“Now everyone, together.”
The man can no longer wait for the woman to respond. He throws equally long, deliberate glances at the young college student sitting in the same row as the woman, the middle-aged man hiding halfway behind the column, and the heavy-set youth sitting askew by the window.
“Emos, emeteros. My, our.”
Three students read along quietly.
“Sos, humeteros. Your, your.”
The man standing at the podium looks to be in his mid to late thirties. His build is on the smaller side, but the line of his eyebrows and the depression between his nose and upper lip are prominent. A thin smile playing on his lips masks his thoughts. His dark brown corduroy jacket has a small patch of lighter brown leather at the elbows, and his wrists peek out of sleeves that are just a bit too short. He has a thin white scar curving from the edge of his left eye to the corner of his mouth. The woman looks up at it silently. When she had first noticed his scar, she imagined it as a trail of tears marked on an ancient map.
Behind his thick lenses tinted with the slightest touch of green, the man’s eyes focus on the woman’s tightly shut lips. His smile fades. He turns away to hide his stern expression and hurriedly writes a short Greek sentence on the blackboard. Before even getting to place the accents, the chalk falls to the ground, breaking in two.
Late last spring, with hands dusty with chalk, the woman stood leaning against the blackboard. A minute passed since the woman had not been able to find the right words to continue, and the students began to stir. She was staring blankly, not at her students, the ceiling, or even the windows, but into the void in front of her.
“Are you okay?”
A curly-haired female student with charming eyes asked her from the front row. The woman tried to smile in response, but all she could muster was a brief twitch of her eyelid. Her shaking lips were forcefully shut, and originating somewhere even deeper than her tongue or throat, she murmured to herself.
It has come back.
The forty something students sitting in front of her nervously met each other’s eyes, and muted whispers of “What’s going on?” spread from desk to desk. The only thing she could do was to step calmly out of the classroom. She kept her composure to the best of her ability. The second she was completely out in the hallway, the hushed murmurings in the classroom escalated quickly as if someone had turned up the speakers. The noise swallowed up the echoes of her clicking heels on the marble floor.
Beginning the year she had graduated from college, the woman worked for six or so years at a publishing company and at an editing agency. After she quit, she was been a lecturer of literature for seven years at two universities and one high school of the arts in the metropolitan area. Every three years or so, she published a collection of serious poetry, and she had been a columnist in a bi-weekly book review magazine for several years. Recently, she was busy with meetings every Wednesday as a founding member for a yet unnamed cultural magazine.
But now that it was back, she had to put a hold to all her work.
There was no reason, no warning for it.
Of course, it had been six months since her mother passed away, several years since her divorce, three lawsuits since she had lost the custody of her nine-year-old son, and five months since her child had returned to her ex-husband’s house. The gray-haired psychiatrist, whom she had been seeing weekly due to her insomnia that came about after losing custody of her son, could not understand why the woman kept denying the blatantly self-evident reasons for her sleeping disorder.
She had written on the white paper on the table.
Things aren’t that simple.
That was their last meeting. Their sessions, which had to be conducted through writing, were too time consuming and had led to too many misunderstandings. He suggested that she see a different doctor specializing in speech therapy, but she respectfully declined. More than anything else, she no longer had the financial means to afford such expensive therapy.
It is said that the woman had been a precocious child. Her mother, as she underwent chemotherapy in the last year of her life, constantly reminded the woman of this fact. As if it was the most important thing to do before her impending death.
This may have been true about the woman’s skills in language. At the age of four, she had taught herself the Korean alphabet. Not yet aware of the concepts of consonants and vowels, she simply memorized words in their entirety. It was not until she was six that her brother, mimicking his homeroom teacher, had taught her proper linguistic structures. At first, when she learned these concepts, they were meaningless, vague ideas, but every afternoon that early spring, she squat on her porch with the sun shining down on her, unable to shake off thoughts of those vowels and consonants. And after a while, she discovered the subtle difference between the n sound in pronouncing na and ni, and soon afterwards the difference in the s sound in sa and si. Having made all the possible vowel combinations in her head, she realized that the i and ŭ sounds, were the only two vowels sounds that could not be combined respectively, and because of this, there was also no way for her to write the sound in Korean.
These humble linguistic discoveries had given her such vivid memories of sheer excitement that, twenty years later, when the psychiatrist asked about her earliest, most intense memory, she recalled the rays of sun that she had felt on the porch that spring. Her neck and back, tingling from the warmth of the sunlight. Words, thoughtfully etched into the dirt with a stick. Pieces of the alphabet, precariously clinging to one another, holding a mysterious but miraculous potential.
Afterwards, as she entered elementary school, she began to record words in the back pages of her journal. Without reason, without context, they were simply words that she found particularly interesting. Her favorite was the word sup (숲), for forest.
It was an architecturally formed word, with its structure reminiscent of ancient pagodas. The ㅍ was the stylobat, the ㅜ was the body, and the ㅅ was the very top. In the pronunciation in the order of s-u-p, she enjoyed the slow exhalation of air through her contracted O-shaped lips. Then the lips would close completely. A word that ends in silence. There was a stillness that surrounded its pronunciation, meaning, and shape. Mesmerized by the word, she repeatedly wrote: 숲. 숲.
Contrary to her mother’s recollection of the woman being “exceptionally bright” as a child, she had not been one to stand out from her peers. All through middle school, she was not a troublemaker, but nor did she have particularly good grades. She had a handful of friends, but none close enough for her to hang out with after school. Except for when she was washing her face, she was a curiously uninterested young girl who never spent time in front of the mirror, and not once did she feel the slightest longing for romance. After school, she would head to the nearest public library to read books, but not her school textbooks, and at night, she would read herself to sleep under a pile of even more library books. The only person who knew that her life was being violently torn in two was the young girl herself. The words that she wrote in the back of her diary were beginning to writhe anxiously, joining to form alien sentences. Occasionally, the pointed words would pierce through into her dreams, viciously rousing her from her sleep. The less she slept, the more her nerves stood dangerously on edge, and sometimes, unexplainable bouts of pain would strike the pit of her stomach.
The most agonizing part was that every individual word she let slip from her mouth, she heard with terrifying clarity. No matter how trifling the word or sentence, its completeness and imperfections, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness, were evident to her with icy transparency. She felt shame from the tangled white webs of sentences streaming from her tongue and her fingers. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to scream.
It was winter of when she turned seventeen that it finally came. Language, which had been pricking her relentlessly like a robe of needles, suddenly vanished from her body. She could hear the sounds of words in her ears, but the thick, dense atmospheric layer of silence was blocking the passages between her ears and her brain. The movement of her tongue and lips which she had used for making sounds, and the firm grip of her pencil which she had used to write words – these memories were muffled by the same silence. She could no longer access them. The girl did not think in terms of language anymore. She moved without language and she understood without language. She was enclosed by the silence that absorbed the passage of time like cotton batting. She returned to a time before she knew how to speak, no, to a time even before she had been granted life in this world.
The girl’s very shaken mother took her to the psychiatrist to get medication, but the girl spent the following two seasons hiding the pills under her tongue, then burying them in the flowerbed. In the same yard where she had first learned of vowels and consonants, she spent her days squatting, feeling the sun on her back and her neck, just as she had done before. Even before the first heat wave of summer, the nape of her neck was darkly tanned, and the bridge of her nose, which was always damp with sweat, was red from heat rash. The scarlet sage flower that had bloomed absorbing the woman’s drugs started to wither. It was then that the girl’s mother and doctor decided it was time for her to return to school. It was becoming glaringly clear that staying at home was not doing her any good, and it was agreed that the she had to finish her schooling.
She had received an assignment notification to a high school in February earlier that year, but had never been on the school grounds. It was an uninviting place. The academic materials were far ahead of where she had left off, and the teachers, regardless of their age, were overbearing and authoritative. No one paid any attention to the new girl who refused to speak a single word all day. When she was called on in class to read out loud or when she had to respond to commands during gym class, she simply stared silently at the teachers. Without fail, she was always dismissed to the back of the classroom or slapped in the face as punishment.
Contrary to the expectations of her mother and psychiatrist, the new stimuli from her social life were not enough to crack her silence. An even thicker, glowing stillness filled the dark hollows of the empty vessel that the girl became. Along the crowded streets on her way home, she walked deliberately and weightlessly as if she was inside a gigantic soap bubble. She looked out into the world from underwater, insulated by the glimmering waves of silence. Cars roared by and vanished into the night, and the sharp elbows of passing pedestrians stung her side then faded away.
After much time had passed, she wondered:
If that single French word had not nudged her on that winter day at school. If she hadn’t suddenly been able to recall language, as one remembers the trace of an atrophied organ.
Of the foreign languages that she knew, including English and classical Chinese, it was French that had jogged her memory probably because it was the most unfamiliar to her. She only started to learn it as she entered high school. She was staring vacantly at the blackboard as usual, when her line of vision cut short at a single word. The stumpy, balding French teacher pointed to it and said it out loud. Her lips, caught off guard, trembled excitedly like a young child’s. Bibliothèque, she heard herself murmur somewhere far below her tongue or her throat.
She did not realize the sheer importance of that moment.
Back then her fear was yet faint. The pain was still hesitating, wavering in the depths of silence, waiting for the right moment to expose its heated coils. At the vacillating meeting point of letters and sounds, ecstasy and sin intertwined and burned together, like the slow burning fuse of an explosive.
* Translated by Mickey Yoon-Jung Hyun.
Han Kang has received the Man Booker International Prize 2016, the Yi Sang Literary Award, Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literature Prize. English translations of her books include The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015), Human Acts (Portobello, 2016), and The White Book (Portobello, 2018).