The Investigation

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The Investigation is Korean author Jung-Myung Lee’s seventh novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Chi-Young Kim). It’s an intriguing combination of genres: part murder investigation, part meditation on the power of art, and part documentary (one of its major characters is the Korean poet, Yun Dong-ju). While Lee’s success in intertwining these strands is questionable, it contains enough in the way of interesting material to make it an enjoyable read.

The setting is a Japanese prison during the Second World War and it begins, of course, with the discovery of a body:

“The body was hanging naked from a rope wrapped around a cross beam on the ceiling. His arms were open at his sides and tied to the railing. Blood dripped from the left side of his chest, down his stomach and thigh, and hung for a moment on the tip of his big toe before falling to the ground.”

The corpse in question is that of Sugityama Dozan, a particularly vicious guard; an ex-soldier who arrived at the prison in 1939 accompanied by a variety of rumours regarding his heroic exploits and war wounds. (His reputation is enhanced by a Judge Dredd type single-handed suppression of a riot). The only clue to his killer is a poem found in his pocket, copied out in his own handwriting. The responsibility for the investigation is given to the novel’s narrator, Watanabe Yuichi, a young soldier, rather than being handed over to the police. The Warden explains:

“…here in Fukuoka prison we can’t follow standard procedures. We have the most dangerous elements of the archipelago here – men who need to be eliminated from society, people who shouldn’t have been born to begin with.”

This attitude is one that the novel sets out to both exemplify (by demonstrating the way prisoners are treated) and undermine (through Watanabe’s developing understanding of the inmates as a result of his investigation), particularly with regard to the Korean prisoners – generally held for political reasons – who are regarded as the worst of all. It quickly becomes clear that Dozan himself was not as one-dimensional a character as those around him thought – his appointment as prisoner censor allowed him to encounter literature for the first time in his life (slightly implausibly, he was initially illiterate), and this caused a transformation that Watanabe slowly uncovers, along with Dozan’s relationship with the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju. Lee has explained his intentions (in an article at Upcoming4.me):

“I wanted to use these literary evidences to expand the heart of murder mystery and ask: Can literature and art provide salvation for human soul?”

For this reason, the novel also includes a subplot in which a performance of classical music is arranged involving some of the prisoners, running parallel to the story of their use in medical experiments (indeed, the prisoners are allowed to pause to listen to the music on the way to medical wing). Similarly there are two escape tunnels being dug: a conventional one, and one which leads to secret library in the prison basement:

“Some books had the power to heal illness and provide the essence of life.”

Despite some commonplaces (the naive investigator given the task exactly because he will never get to the truth and then refusing to stop until he does, for example), and perhaps too many complications towards the end, the novel’s central mystery has a number of satisfying twists. Both the setting and the literary theme enhance the novel, but there are times its parts seem in danger of becoming separated. Its greatest weakness is its rather plain narrative style, with some strange word choices (“cruddy”, “stumped” – “twinkling” appears a lot), and clichés (“ramrod-straight”; “restless sea”; “battered heart”) – particularly dangerous in a novel about the importance of art. The Investigation was always unlikely to make the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize short list, but it tells an interesting story and is a straight forward read – and is not without ambition.

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7 Responses to “The Investigation”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I put this one aside. I thought it might be an entertaining read but as it had not advanced or fared too well in shadow polling I decided to turn my focus elsewhere. But that is not to say I won’t return to finish it down the road.

  2. MarinaSofia Says:

    I put down the unfortunate choices of words to the translation, I have to admit. And there were other passages which were rather beautiful – some really memorable scenes, too. I just liked the whole aspect of beauty and art as a way of resisting oppression and violence. The mystery aspect of it wasn’t the most important bit, to my mind, but I liked the gradual awakening of the ‘investigator’ to the fact that the world is not all black and white, right and wrong.

    • 1streading Says:

      The idea of life being more complex than it at first appears fits both the investigator’s loss of innocence and the unravelling of the truth – in that sense both those aspects of the novel matched quite well.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Good review, Grant. It sounds as though there’s a lot going on here. Interesting themes, but perhaps this novel loses something in the execution?

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