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Greek Lessons

Translated into English by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won

Extracted in The New Yorker January 23

“Now and then, language would thrust its way into her sleep like a skewer through meat, startling her awake several times a night…”

In a classroom in Seoul, a young woman watches her Greek language teacher at the blackboard. She tries to speak but has lost her voice. Her teacher finds himself drawn to the silent woman, for day by day he is losing his sight. Soon they discover a deeper pain binds them together. For her, in the space of just a few months, she has lost both her mother and the custody battle for her nine-year-old son. For him, it’s the pain of growing up between Korea and Germany, being torn between two cultures and languages, and the fear of losing his independence.

Greek Lessons tells the story of two ordinary people brought together at a moment of private anguish—the fading light of a man losing his vision meeting the silence of a woman who has lost her language. Yet these are the very things that draw them to one another. Slowly the two discover a profound sense of unity—their voices intersecting with startling beauty, as they move from darkness to light, from silence to breath and expression. Greek Lessons is a tender love letter to human intimacy and connection—a novel to awaken the senses, one that vividly conjures the essence of what it means to be alive.


“Both characters are achingly alone, disconnected, in their own ways, from the world. Eventually, gradually, they do find a kind of connection with each other. But it’s Han’s exploration of their limitations—both linguistic and visual—that makes the novel so deeply moving. On page after page, she describes ever so meticulously the ways we are cut off from the world even as we yearn for it. A stunning exploration of language, memory, and beauty from an internationally renowned writer.” – Kirkus [STARRED REVIEW]

‘Booker winner Kang (The Vegetarian) explores the borders of the senses in this delicate love story. An unnamed Korean woman living in Seoul stops speaking after her mother dies and she loses custody of her eight-year-old son. An interest in language, though, continues to tug at her, and she enrolls in a Greek class. There, she begins writing poetry that catches the eye of her instructor who, unbeknownst to anyone else, is slowly losing his sight. Split between his dual homelands of Korea and Germany, the instructor picks up on the student’s search for a language beyond what can be expressed or seen with the naked eye, something the woman gestures at in her poetry: “a language as cold and hard as a pillar of ice.” In prose that merges memory, story, and poetry, Kang tracks how the two find in one another what is missing from the sensual world. This brilliant, shimmering work is never at a loss for words even when exploring the mind of a woman who won’t speak, and its pursuit of an authentic, exquisite new form is profound. Once again, Kang demonstrates great visionary power’. – Publishers Weekly

"Man Booker International Prize–winning Han has built an enviable career providing exquisite, intimate space for damaged, lost souls. Her Booker-sharing translator, the lauded Deborah Smith, has gifted three of Han’s English-rendered titles to Anglophone audiences; she returns here for a fourth seamless collaboration, this time with Canada-born, Korea-based Emily Yae Won. Originally published in Korea in 2011 as 희랍어 시간 (Huilabeo Sigan, literally “Greek Time”), Han’s newest import remains empathically timeless, a potential-love-story-in-progress that is another intimate, lingering meditation on identity and autonomy. Her story is initially voiceless—presented at a distance in third person—revealing a woman who escaped an abusive marriage, only at the cost of losing custody of her eight-year-old son and then facing her own mother’s death a month later. His story—written in first person as if he’s striving for independence—is mostly epistolary as he examines his pixilated past involving both emotional and literal blindness as a Korean immigrant to Germany who returns to Korea to teach Greek in a Seoul language academy. Han’s signature elliptical, incisive writing first introduces "she" and "he" as separate loners, each struggling in isolation. What might originally read like a bifurcated narrative deftly intertwines into a haunting exploration of tentative possibilities and yearned-for connections." – Booklist

Author: Han Kang
Publisher: Munhakdongne
Territories: Brazil: Todavia; China: Beijing Xiron Books; Denmark: Gads; Finland: Gummerus; France: Serpent A Plumes/Points Seuil; Germany: Aufbau; Greece: Kastaniotis; Italy: Adelphi; Japan: Shobunsha; Netherlands: Nijgh & Van Ditmar; Norway: Pax; Portugal: Leya/Don Quixote Spain: PRH + La Magrana (Catalan); UK: Hamish Hamilton; US: Hogarth Press
Other Han Kang Titles