Just as World War II ended in 1945, the Korean War began. It's lead up caused by the recent global war that divided Korea into North and South, and also from the rising tensions of what would become the largest mind game of a war in world history, the Cold War. Korea's Civil War had been in the making within its own country for several years as well due to political movements and disconnected ideologies, and while most of the world focused its fighting in Europe during the early 1940's, many Koreans were waging a battle against their own people.
This serves as the motivation for J. M. Lee's new novel, The Investigation. In America, he is a completely unknown writer, but in Korea, his novels have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and one of them was even turned into a popular Korean television show. For the first time, one of his novels has been translated into English by Chi-Young Kim. Translations of foreign novels are always welcome additions for English language readers, and given the state of Korea today and the image that a large body of the American people project onto their culture, The Investigation is that much more important because of the current climate.
Set in Fukouka Prison in 1944, the novel is introduced to readers as a murder mystery inside the Japanese controlled prison walls. A guard is found murdered, and our young narrator, also a prison guard, is tasked to finding out who did it. It is presented as a historical novel with storytelling aspects of modern day thrillers, but Lee adds a unique layer to the hybrid genre by advancing the plot through poetry.
The narrator finds a clue on the deceased guard, a piece of paper with a poem on it which strikes our protagonist as somewhat odd given the reputation and nickname of the Butcher that the war veteran turned brutal guard was given several years back. It turns out that the Butcher had a soft spot as we learn that he had befriended an inmate of the prison. That inmate was serving a two year sentence for contributing to the Korean independence movement by allegedly being a "thought criminal," a term that was brought to the main stream by George Orwell in his 1949 novel, 1984.
Six years prior to that book release, Korean poet, Yun Dong-ju fell victim to this abstract criminal action. Lee fictionalizes Dong-ju in The Investigation by scattering the poet's work throughout the prose, at times to drive the plot, and at others, to showcase the talent of a prominent Korean Resistance poet whose dedication to advancing his education deemed him too dangerous for society, and led to his imprisonment. He always wanted to be a poet, but he was unable to get his collection of poetry published before he was locked away, and unfortunately, Dong-ju passed away in prison in 1945, at the height of tensions just prior to the onset of the Korean War. His poetry was not published until 1948, but over the next few decades, his writing became highly regarded and important period pieces conceived over a tumultuous stretch of our world's history.
The Butcher was an aspiring poet himself, a quality that adds a depth to his character, showing that even the most ruthless of oppressors are capable of having a fascination with the beauty of poetry for human understanding. Lee describes the horrid realities of prison life in Fukuoka admirably, detailing the ill fated attempts at prison escapes, and the constant moral dilemma that haunted some of the more questioning guards inside its walls, including our narrator, Watabe Yuichi. Along with the passages of poetry, our narrator's love interest with an infirmary nurse is chronicled, providing the necessary attribute of some form of normal human interaction in what is otherwise a bleak, yet honest setting.
J. M. Lee's first English translation is a puzzling work of fiction that, at times, will feel familiar to novels that Americans are accustomed to reading, but is also distinctly different. Puzzling is welcome here as it provides a realistic look into the real life horrors of the past while displaying the work of a prominent Korean novelist. Readers interested in experiencing book culture from around the world have a new addition to add to their reading lists. The Investigation is a well paced historical novel that introduces English readers to the great Korean novelist J. M. Lee and to the small, yet powerful body of work from a Korean poet of the past. Yu Dong-ju's poetry is breathtaking, and choosing a favorite poem featured in the novel is not an easy task, but it makes sense to start at the beginning of what he was composing before his imprisonment.
- The Sky, the Wind, the Stars and Poetry
Let me look up to the heavens
Without a speck of shame
Until the day I die.
I was in agony
Even from the wind rustling among leaves
I shall love every dying being
Singing of the stars
And I shall walk
On the path given to me.
Tonight too the stars brush against the wind.