Written by Jung-Myung Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim — There’s been a move on of late to introduce Western readers to Korea’s literary traditions. However, up until now we’ve not come across many Korean crime pieces. The Investigation fits the bill, and more…
The book is set in Fukuoka Prison, in 1944. It’s a remote location for a prison overflowing with common criminals, anti-war intellectuals and anti-Japanese Korean rebels. Ward Three, the Korean ward, is deemed to be the most dangerous, so the prison guards are viciously brutal. It’s not long before one of the most feared and notorious of prison guards, Sugiyama Dozan, is found hanging naked, almost completely exsanguinated, from a rope wrapped around a crossbeam on the ceiling, with his lips stitched together.
Watanabe, a young and rather inexperienced soldier-guard, is tasked with finding the killer. What he finds instead is a tangled web of prison hierarchy, complex relationships between inmates and guards, and desperate bids for freedom. Although one of the Korean ringleaders eventually confesses to the crime, all the evidence shows that Prisoner 645, the gentle, almost ethereal poet Yun Dong-ju, is at the heart of it all. Watanabe, a book lover himself, finds himself succumbing to the beauty of the Korean poet’s work. He also discovers that Sugiyama was not necessarily the monster everybody perceived him to be. What is Watanabe to make of the poetry in Japanese which he finds among Sugiyama’s possessions, or the fact that the guard had encouraged one of the nurses to conduct a choir of Korean prisoners to sing the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco, the opera by Verdi?
This book was inspired by the real life story of dissident Korean poet Yun Dong-ju, who has become something of a national treasure in Korea today, although his body of work is largely confined to the 31 poems which he entrusted to a friend before the War. In a strange twist of fate, proving that truth is often stranger than fiction, his grave was only discovered in China in 1985 and documents confirming his interrogation and death in prison were only declassified in the late 1970s. His poems are liberally quoted throughout the book, and many lines are used as chapter titles, such as ‘As a Stranger I Arrived, as a Stranger Again I Leave’ or ‘How Despair Becomes a Song’.
There are many gruesome scenes of torture and violence in this book, but there is also hope and tenderness. Fragile blossoms of relationships begin to bloom in spite of the circumstances: Sugiyama tuning the piano so that the talented nurse and musical prodigy Midori can play; the kite-flying competition from within and outside the prison walls; and prisoners memorising books, allowing them to take root in their hearts, so that they can then share them with others in the oral story-telling tradition of our ancestors.
This book is not strictly speaking a whodunnit, although there is a mystery at its core. Although it also contains elements of a war story and a prison story, it does not entirely fall into those categories either. Yet it is absorbing, and easily one of the most moving books I have read this year. It is the story of a personal transformation – of starting to question the things you have always taken for granted, standing up to authority and to your own culture. But it is also more far-reaching than that. It is a brave quest for freedom and humanity in a world torn apart by conflict and brutality. It is a book about man’s eternal quest for meaning, beauty and the need to be understood.
An unconventional crime novel, a thrilling literary novel, and a book which will stay with you forever.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars