Translated by Chi-Young Kim (www.chiyoungkim.com)
Fukuoka Prison, shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, is used for the incarceration of, amongst others, dissidents and those of anti-Japanese tendencies. For the most part , these people are Koreans, a race whose language has been outlawed and whose culture is slowly being eradicated by their Japanese oppressors. Inside the prison, Sugiyama Dozan, a guard known for his cruelty, has been brutally murdered. Watanabe Yuichi, a young conscript, has been tasked with investigating his death, and with taking over Sugiyama’s role of prison censor. Watanabe’s investigation brings him into contact with the Korean prisoners, Japanese guards, and the medical staff at the attached hospital facility. The picture of Sugiyama that begins to emerge is at odds with the guard’s public persona, and leads the young man to rethink not only what he thought he knew about his older colleague, but what he thought he knew about the workings of Fukuoka prison.
The murder and the ensuing mystery at the centre of Jung-Myung Lee’s beautiful novel is, seemingly, nothing more than window dressing, a pretext used by the author to allow us entry to this closed-off world in the midst of wartime Japan. As the novel progresses, the murder of the older guard – a man who has access to all mail and documentation moving in and out of the prison – takes on a greater importance, but the story of the three men at the centre of this extraordinary tale – a Korean poet, and two Japanese prison guards, one dead, the other tasked with investigating his murder – is what grabs the imagination of the reader, and keeps us turning the pages.
There are already comparisons with the like a Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind (the literary elements) and Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (for more obvious reasons). The book also has more tangential similarities to the likes of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet, it retains a sense of freshness (perhaps due to the setting and cultures involved, which are somewhat alien to many European readers) and Lee manages to surprise and delight as he weaves a tale based on the life of one of Korea’s best-known poets.
Like Shawshank ("I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope."), The Investigation is a story about hope in the least likely of situations. As Watanabe’s investigation into the death of Sugiyama proceeds we begin to see deep into the older man’s psyche (even breaking away from the first-person narrative in which the bulk of the story is told to give us a closer insight into Sugiyama’s final months). He is affected by "culture" – the music of the piano that he helps to tune, the poetry of Yun Dong-ju, the writings of the various prohibited books that he keeps in his office in preparation for incineration as part of his duties as censor. This is a picture completely at odds with what we’ve already learned about this man, who issues brutal beatings to the Korean prisoners under his command, enforcing long periods in solitary confinement. Understanding dawns as the novel continues, and it becomes clear that the public persona is nothing more than a mask that conceals who Sugiyama truly is.
The Investigation is the story of two different men – the older Sugiyama and the teenage Watanabe – whose lives run in parallel from the moment Watanabe is chosen by the prison warden to investigate the older man’s murder. Watanabe’s life – the relationship he develops with Yun Dong-ju, the impact the Korean’s poetry has on him – is an echo of that already lived by Sugiyama. There are some beautiful touches here: the kites, for example, which allow the prisoners to feel a kind of vicarious freedom as they fly high above the prison walls take on a whole new meaning when we discover what they contain, and the strange friendship they have facilitated between those inside the walls, and a young girl who lives outside.
The novel also shines a light on the Japanese nation through the filter of one of its most notorious prisons. The spotlight here is on the oppression of the Korean nation, which was on-going long before the outbreak of the Second World War. These are a people whose language has been outlawed and who are branded as radicals and rebels at the slightest provocation. This is demonstrated in Yun Dong-ju’s enforced change of name to the Japanese Hiranuma, and his further dehumanisation as Prisoner 645. But there is always hope, and it often comes in the form of literature, something that plays a major part in the lives of all of the protagonists, from the poet and student Dong-ju, to Watanabe, who spent the majority of his formative years in his family’s second-hand bookshop, an experience that has obviously had an impact in shaping the man he now is.
My heart leapt with joy. I wanted to be even more like the bookworms – to be born in books, live among them, and die in a library.
Based on a true story, The Investigation is a beautiful, and often heart-breaking novel of despair and the hope that ideas and imagination can bring. A literary masterpiece masquerading as a mystery novel (something else is shares with Eco’s The Name of the Rose), it gives us a brief glimpse of hell before showing us the beauty in the everyday. It may well be my own inability to parse verse, but I feel that Yun Dong-ju’s poetry – which is scattered liberally throughout the book – loses something in translation, but this is a minor niggle that shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the story as a whole. Slow to start, The Investigation is worth sticking with until it hits its stride, at which point it becomes impossible to put down. Jung-Myung Lee is, by all accounts, a bestseller in his native Korea. The Investigation shows that his work has international appeal. If you’ve enjoyed any of the novels that have been mentioned in this review – or indeed, the excellent films that have been produced from them – then this is a book not to be missed.