The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Korean tale of a mute Greek student is lost in translation
by Han Kang, tr Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won
160pp, Penguin, T £14.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP£16.99, ebook£9.99
The Vegetarian (2015), for which Han Kang won the International Booker Prize, is a tale of distressing decline. Its protagonist, Yeong-hye, sinks into mental crisis, refusing first to eat meat then everything else; she’s lured into a sex film, abused and institutionalised.
Greek Lessons, the fifth novel by the South Korean writer to be translated into English, shares
The Vegetarian’s emphasis on bodily fragility, and its intensity of style, but describes a different, softer arc. As two protagonists each contend with the loss of a physical sense, they are brought together, and Han’s novel opens, unexpectedly, into hope.
A young female poet in Seoul is seeking to regain her speech, which has fled her for reasons unknown, by enrolling in an ancient Greek class taught by a 30-something man. Her childhood bout of mutism had been cured by speaking French; now, in a language as alien in space and more in time, she hopes to be cured again. The teacher’s eyes, meanwhile, continue fading, and blindness seems inescapable.
Greek Lessons alternates between the two, framing the woman in the third person, living alone after losing custody of her son, and the man in the first, through the letters he sends abroad. It absorbs for lengthy spells yet, as the duo grows closer, the prose becomes disjointed: it cracks uncertainly into sections, single questions or memories. In the process, its beauties recede and become occasional, too brief and too oblique.
Like The Vegetarian, Greek Lessons comes into English after a delay of several years in a translation by Deborah Smith (here collaborating with Emily Yae Won). Smith’s versions have stirred excitement, and she makes no bones of her free approach, but the English version of The Vegetarian had its detractors in South Korea, who warned of misunderstandings and stylistic inconsistencies. I leave the first to them, but on the second, I understand the qualms: think of Greek Lessons as a garden that is mostly neat, but unbalanced by purple blooms.
“Fidelity” to another language may be a limiting idea – just ask Pound or Nabokov – but to oneself, at least, it should be a mark of discipline. Han and Smith, it’s said, jointly signed off these English versions. Whatever the virtues or vices of the responsibility is shared.