Friday, May 17, 2019

J M Lee - The Investigation

Author: Jung Myung Lee
Title: The Investigation
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Translator: Kim Chi Young

Nearly five years ago I was introduced to Korean Series by my mother. In these years I have barely seen a handful of Hollywood movies, another handful of British ones. Hollywood AV output, movies or series, was once my staple. The majority of my watching time is now devoted to Korean series or movies.  I have discovered a new world, a new sensibility there which I am not willing to leave.

Likewise, my book reading was also majorly western. I did like a lot of Soviet authors at one time and read them avidly. Mostly it was British authors and the US ones that occupied my reading.  My love of Korean series has made me look for Korean literature as well. I loved Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, both Japanese. Now it was time to look for some Korean authors. I found the magnificent Han Kang who gives us a glimpse into human psyche without any mercy for her readers.  I found Bae Suah equally good, not for the same reasons, but for extracting beauty out of the commonplace.

And now this book! J.M. Lee has used fiction to give us the fictional biography of one of Korea's best loved poets - Yun Dong Ju. Dong Ju was born and brought up in Manchuria where his grandfather had fled to avoid famine in Korea.  Korea was annexed by Japan in Dong Ju's lifetime. He studied for a while in Korea and then went to Japan to study further. He was a poet and wanted to publish his poetry. His professor feared his poetry would be seen as seditious and urged him to give up the idea. He left a copy of his manuscript with his professor and another with his friend. Soon, he was arrested by the Japanese for working underground for Korean independence. He was lodged in Fukuoka prison. He died there after a year and a half,  just before Korea won its independence. Later, his friend published the manuscript of poems left with him.

The narrator of the book, Yuichi Watanbe is a young guard in Fukuoka prison. He is handed the investigation of the murder of a guard Sugiyama. He solves the murder, it was the work of one of the prisoners. However, he finds that things are not simple and keeps digging. In the process he comes in contact with Yun Dong Ju. They share a common love for poetry and literature but the realities of their situation is not conducive to beauty of any kind. They are on opposing sides in a war, a prisoner and a guard. This war has torn apart the victorious nation of Japan as much as the vanquished nation of Korea. The ordinary people of both sides suffer equally. The beauty and sanity of life is a victim here, not the nationality of people.

We get an in depth look into the murky life of prisoners and guards of this prison. This is the worst way in which humans treat their own kind. The greed of a few lays waste the lives of many. The murder mystery is used in a masterly fashion by J.M.Lee to expose the dirty underbelly of war to us. It is interspersed with beautiful poetry of Dong Ju, references to great masters of literature and even Opera.

As I said in my review of Han Kang's Human Acts, if this book does not make you a pacifist, nothing ever will. I have to say it again for this book as well.

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