Posts Tagged ‘the investigation’

The Investigation

April 19, 2015

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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

“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.

The Investigation

November 19, 2012

Philippe Claudel’s novels have always tended towards the generalised and emblematic: in Brodeck’s Report the Second World War is never actually mentioned; in Monsieur Linh and his Child, which focuses on the experience of an immigrant arriving in Europe, no countries are specified. The Investigation (already published in America and due from MacLehose Press in January) takes this one step further by transporting us into a world of Kafkaesque farce.

The novel begins with the Investigator’s arrival in an unnamed city (characters are known by their purpose rather than by name). An East European atmosphere is created by his arrival by train, snow in the air, and the fact that “a giant billboard displayed the hugely enlarged photograph of an old man”. However, this is countered by the Investigator’s task (the Investigator is quite unlike K in that he is very clear about his purpose): to investigate a number of suicides at an all-encompassing company known as the Enterprise. Are we satirising totalitarianism or rampant capitalism? There’s no time to consider this as the Investigator is immediately faced with one problem after another. He cannot get into the Enterprise as it is after nine o’clock and must search for a hotel. The only one he can find is the ironically named Hope Hotel where he is not allowed a room until he has memorised the rules and been tested on them. Even at this early point the Investigator wonders if he might be in hell:

“Then with brutal abruptness a thought came to him, a luminous, self-evident, indubitable thought: He was dead. He’d died without noticing it.”

In another novel we might take this as an indication that the author intends the experience to represent his vision of hell, or his view that that life is hell, but here it already feels more in keeping with a literary in-joke. The hotel will offer numerous comic set pieces: later he will have to lift his bed in order to open the door to a luxurious bathroom where he discovers the only water is scalding.

The Enterprise is equally, though less explicitly, inhospitable. A Guide provides him with a white coat and hard hat (completely unnecessary) and conducts him to an office where he is soon abandoned. Later the same man, returns as the Watchman and threatens him with a gun. If Claudel’s intention is to satirise big business then his targets seem very small scale. We are offered a few deliberately two dimensional characters to laugh at but no sense of how the Enterprise works.

The novel does build towards a symbolic conclusion, but by that point it is difficult to say what Claudel’s target is. Perhaps he is simply suggesting that any search for the truth will be hampered and obstructed. We see this more explicitly in the Investigator’s search for food, something that touches on Claudel’s previous concerns as, when he finally feasts, it is in the company of immigrants who are given nothing. This is a rare moment when the novel seems politicised. Otherwise it is thoroughly entertaining, often amusing, but only occasionally unsettling. Claudel has taken his generalising to the point where any connection with the real world has been lost: yes, it is clothed in reality but it seems more fantasy than satire. This is perhaps why Claudel seems to insist on its fictionality a little too forcefully at the end. It’s great fun to read, and perhaps a little too much fun to write, but, like the Investigator, the Reader leaves the novel none the wiser.