Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee


Being set in Fukuoka Prison at the end of the war, (the same location of Endo Shusaku's novel The Sea and Poison), this novel piqued my interest and also additionally the translation is from Chi-Young Kim whose translation of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly I read recently. Written by Jung-Myung Lee the book incorporates a fictionalized retelling of the life of the Korean poet, Yun Dong-Ju, it opens with the murder of Sugiyama, a guard of the prison known for his merciless treatment of the prisoners, Sugiyama is found strung up with his lips sewn together, another young guard, Watanabe, takes up the investigation of the murder and inside one of Sugiyama's inner pockets Watanabe finds a poem written out on a folded piece of paper. Something which impresses about Jung-Myung Lee's prose is his ability to weave the story seamlessly between each of the character's pasts with that of Watanabe's investigation in the present tense. The first and primary suspect is prisoner Choi Chi-su, a notoriously violent inmate who is repeatedly sent to solitary after attempting to escape many times, as well as exploring the past lives of Sugiyama and Choi Chi-su and their paths to the prison we are given a portrait of Watanabe, whose father went away to war, leaving him behind with his mother who set up a bookstore in Kyoto, there's an interesting description of the store being a 'fortress of books', but then Watanabe receives his red letter calling him up and eventually his being stationed at the prison.

Watanabe's lines of inquiry into Sugiyama's past also lead him to another inmate, Hiranuma, (Yun Donj-ju's given Japanese name), who was imprisoned for organising political meetings and his involvement with the Korean independence movement, as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that Sugiyama who despised intellectuals and reading begins to have found himself becoming absorbed into the world of books and reading. Posted on Ward 3 of the prison, known for its violence Sugiyama was put in charge with censoring the mail going in and out,  Hiranuma being able to translate Korean to Japanese and only letters written in Japanese having any chance of passing the censor, Hiranuma writes postcards home for the other inmates, whilst writing these cards Hiranuma begins to include in them references and phrases of his favourite authors, in particular the poets Rilke and Jammes which sends Sugiyama searching through the library's shelves to check if they contain anything seditious and should be censored, slowly he begins to be lured into the world of books and the written word.

The book is told with a deep sense of humility and humanity, the jacket mentions that it is perfect for fans of The Shadow of the Wind - a book I've yet to read, but in writing this book and it's appearance in English translation Jung-Myung Lee and Chi-Young Kim  have done a great service in bringing attention to the life of the poet Yun Dong-ju, as well as this the novel is imbued with an appreciation of reading and the ability of the written word to transform lives and outlooks. The plot is full of the enigma's and cruelties of it's times and Watanabe's investigation leads him into uncovering an uncomfortably dark truth about the prison and its practices, the riddle of Sugiyama's death is left unsolved until the last pages of the novel.


The Investigation at Mantle/PanMacmillan

Sky, Wind and Stars at Jain Publishing

  

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