Words and Gestures: Greek Lessons by Hang Kang

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byAurélie Julia
Leçons de Grec (Greek Lessons)
Tr. Jeong Eun-Jin

“If snow is a silence that descends from the sky, then perhaps rain consists of endless phrases that fall from it.” Your eyes discover this sentence for the first time; it is so harmoniously composed that you read it again, out loud this time. Spoken aloud, the words take on greater depth, but do not yet surrender their full riches. You must read them again, allowing the language to radiate and resonate within you before you grasp their full significance.

Leçons de Grec opens with a quotation carved on the gravestone of Jorge Luis Borges: “He takes the sword and lays it naked between them.” The novel’s central themes are thus established from the outset. This is a world of separations, rifts, and wounds.

The story centers on two unnamed characters: a woman and a man. She is mute, the mother of a child who has been taken from her care, and has recently begun taking evening classes. She wants to learn ancient Greek. He is around forty, single, a teacher of Greek and Latin. In a few months, he will be blind, his eyes afflicted with a hereditary degenerative disease. They both have a stoop, their frail shoulders straining under the weight of the world. The man wants to fade into the background, to no longer suffer the oppressive looks he received in Germany where, for sixteen years, he was the Other: a “weird Asian student” with a talent for dead languages. The woman wants to no longer occupy any space at all, whether with her voice or her body; she wants to hold her breath and dissolve away in water. “You came so close to not being born,” her aunts told her over and over—a comment that, through repeated hearing, has come to feel like a prohibition: she has no right to exist. She seems to be deprived of a hold on any event, watching the spectacle of life pass her by without emotion. Her son was her connection to reality. His absence has removed all desire from her. Her refusal to speak another word turns her outline into a solid, heavy, hermetic mass: “Nothing comes out, nothing gets in.” No communication or exchange is to take place with the outside world. The boundary is clear.

These two damaged souls limp their way through a kaleidoscopic world. Memories surface sporadically, fragments are slowly pieced together, and recollection paves the way for the process of rebuilding.

The man and the woman lead parallel lives until they are brought together by a bird. Having accidentally flown into a building, it causes the teacher, even more vulnerable than this tiny feathered creature, to fall over, breaking his glasses and injuring himself. The woman appears in a doorway, helps him, listens to him. They begin a dialogue consisting not of signs but of physical contact: words traced on the palm of the hand.

The exploration of language, of the unspeakable, and of incommunicability, is a theme dear to Han Kang. Its presence is discernible in all her works translated into French (Les Chiens au soleil couchant; Pars, le vent se lève; La Végétarienne; and Celui qui revient). In Leçons de Grec, this reflection is taken even further by a protagonist who deliberately refuses to express herself. The mute woman’s viewpoint enables us to perceive the physical forms of words: some of them fall from the clouds, others are erased from the blackboard; some become metal skewers, others are foul-smelling or noisy. She may be trying to eject language from her body, but her intention is not to see it disappear entirely. Instead, she wants to reappropriate it for herself in another realm. The images of magma and exploding sunspots, and her desire to find a single word that can encompass all of humanity’s languages, imply a quest for an original language. While seemingly less ambitious, the blind man’s expectations are still demanding. His study of ancient languages represents an attempt to achieve “literary ecstasy.”


The rain carried on falling

Something broke within us

In the place where there was no light or voice.


We must read Han Kang for what she is: a virtuoso of the written word. 


by Aurélie Julia
Editorial Coordinator,
Revue des Deux Mondes

Author's Profile

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).