‘The Investigation’ by Jung-Myung Lee (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 5)

IMG_2040Having paddled our canoes back from Equatorial Guinea’s Atlantic islands, it’s time to head east on our literary voyage, as we make a trip to Asia.  While our next book hails from Korea, the setting lies just across the waters in wartime Japan, and it’s a story that looks at the fraught relationship between the imperialists and those whose home country (and tongue) has been suppressed.  Don’t worry if the prison gates close behind you: we’ll only be here for a short while – I promise…

The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee – PanMacmillan (translated by Chi-Young Kim)
What’s it all about?
Yuichi Watanabe is being charged as a low-level war criminal for his duties at Fukuoka Prison towards the end of the Second World War, and the bulk of The Investigation concerns his story of the people inside the prison walls and the events that took place there.  The story proper begins with the young conscript guard being assigned to a special investigation.  His duty partner, Dozan Sugiyama, has been found brutally murdered, hanging from a rail with his lips stitched together, and it’s Watanabe’s job to find out who ended Sugiyama’s life.

The older guard was known for his sadistic nature, and there is no shortage of suspects for the crime, particularly among the Korean prisoners in Ward Three.  The intelligent Watanabe soon uncovers suspicious activities at the prison, his investigation focusing on a known Korean troublemaker.  However, something keeps him digging deeper, and an introduction to an unusual prisoner sheds new light on both the murder and Sugiyama.  Could it be that the heartless survivor of the Manchurian conflict possessed an artistic soul?

The Investigation is an interesting choice for the IFFP as the novel is part literary fiction and part thriller.  While there is a focus on who did it (and why), the crime is more an opportunity for the writer to examine the theme of Koreans in Japan during the war and the importance of language and literature.  The more Watanabe gets to know the poet, the more fascinated he is by his work, and his determination to clear up the puzzle stems just as much from his desire to protect the poet as from his sense of duty.

For much of the novel, though, Watanabe is actually less important than the other main characters.  There’s a constant focus on Sugiyama, a complex figure whose character is gradually unveiled in flashbacks.  The guard is undoubtedly brutal, but Watanabe comes to realise there’s more inside his colleague – having recently learned to read, the older man has suddenly become captivated by the magic of words…

The catalyst is the centre of all the action here, Tochu Hiranuma or, to give him his Korean name, Yun Dong-ju.  Yun is a young poet swept into prison under false pretences, his crime merely being Korean in an era of subjugation:

“He was no longer free, but he hadn’t ever known how it felt to be free; no Korean was free.”
p.106 (Pan MacMillan, 2014)

He has an innate need for words and books, and his poetry has a startling effect on Sugiyama, causing the guard to neglect his duties.

In truth, he has the same effect on the sensitive Watanabe, a man who misses his books.  In fact, the guard later learns that there’s something more than a love of literature that connects him to the poet:

“I turned the pages one by one.  This book had come to me from some stranger and stayed with the young poet before returning to me.  Rilke’s words had wandered thought the world, embracing and healing damaged spirits.  That night, the world became a little more beautiful.” (p.248)

Just like Sugiyama before him, he too begins to keep secrets from his superiors.  Of course, what he doesn’t realise is that they’re keeping secrets from him too.

The best part of the novel is the interplay between the poet and the two guards, the KoreanIMG_5182 prisoner and his Japanese captors.  Lee uses his characters to explain the importance of language in preserving identity, with the prisoners always looking for an opportunity to keep their mother tongue alive.  Names, obviously, play a huge role in the book, and major turning points occur when the guards begin to use the poet’s Korean name rather than his assumed Japanese one.  However, there are several other clever examples of language in other areas too, such as when the poet persuades the prison officials to include a rather subversive Verdi song in their concert…

Yun is a real-life figure, a famous poet in Korea and the whole reason for the book, and the sections involving him are excellent.  However, as a whole, the book isn’t that great.  The events around this centre are a little contrived, easy to guess and often fairly weak.  In many ways, this would have been a much better read if the writer had avoided the thriller aspects and simply related the story of two (or three) men in an unhappy time.  For me, there was enough to that story to warrant a novel without needing to throw in the thriller aspects.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so.  In parts, it’s an intriguing story, particularly when the two guards start to become involved with the poet.  However, the plot seems a little superfluous at times, and several of the twists are fairly obvious.  In addition, the prose was fairly pedestrian for the most part, a major drawback in a tale about a poet.  This is a bit of a mish-mash of styles, and while it’s enjoyable at times, I don’t think it’ll go any further.

Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it (although LTI Korea will be hoping it does…).  However, as we’ve seen in recent years, strange things do happen *cough Bundu*…

The prison gates are behind us, and we’re back on the road, this time heading to Europe.  The weather is nice and sunny in Berlin, perfect for a short getaway, and while we’re there, we might watch a bit of telly – I’ve heard there’s a new comedy show with a rather familiar face…

6 thoughts on “‘The Investigation’ by Jung-Myung Lee (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 5)

  1. Sorry to hear you weren’t quite enamoured with this book. I really loved this one – perhaps because I enjoy thriller elements more than you do! While there may not have been many surprises there (although it is not quite know what happened to the real poet in prison), the additional crime elements helped to structure the work and show the pointlessness of violence very effectively. There were some beautiful moments described here: the kite flying contest, the preparations for singing the controversial Verdi chorus, the Japanese guard’s earlier life in the bookshop. And the poetry itself. Although I have no idea how well all of this was translated, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marina Sofia – Hmm, sorry, not for me 😉 The crime elements were simply props for what the writer really wanted to say – including all those beautiful elements you described. This could have been an excellent book about the ambiguous relationship between a Japanese guard and a Korean prisoner with no need for a murder ‘mystery’. However, for a book about a poet and the wonders of language, the prose was pretty flat in places (when I saw that it was translated by the person behind ‘Please Look after Mother’, I was pretty deflated anyway, not the reaction they were going for, I suspect!).


  2. I have nearly finished this one. While I enjoyed it a bit more than you overall, I agree that it’s unlikely to make the shortlist.I think there are other books on the longlist which are more original and surprising than The Investigation.


    1. Clare – Yep, nothing to see here, move along 🙂

      For the rest of the year, this would probably have got a more measured response, but this is IFFP time, so I’m being extra harsh 😉


  3. I liked this review mostly for this line “as a whole, the book isn’t that great” which is admirably pithy. It’s a shame you didn’t like it more, but you definitely got your point across 🙂


    1. Max – Well, I can’t like everything I read although I do seem to find a higher ratio of dross to gold than usual at IFFP time (which is strange when you consider that these are supposed to be the pick of the year’s offerings…).


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