Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge
On the face of it, The Investigation is a murder mystery set in a Japanese prison during the Second World War. It’s more than that, though. It’s a reflection on literature’s power to imprison, to set free, and to sustain. It’s an examination of identity, how individuals define themselves in relation to others and to notions of nationality and culture. It’s a history lesson of sorts about Japanese treatment of Koreans. It’s a beautifully crafted work, full of poetry and grace. The use of literature to underpin the story is compelling. If I have any criticism it’s that sometimes the writing becomes stilted, when the author stops talking about the personal and starts trying to make a point about the wider context of the characters’ lives, and that the resolution to the murder mystery was slightly ridiculous.
The prologue introduces a former Japanese prison guard who has become a prisoner in the gaol he used to guard. The Second World War has recently ended. The novel is an explanation of how he has ended up where he is.
The story begins with the murder of another prison guard. Sugiyama is a hero of the Manchurian Front. Legends pin themselves to his battle scarred body.
He never spoke, his mouth like Ali Baba’s cave that had forgotten how to open. Once in a blue moon a flat, hoarse voice would leak out through his dry lips. He didn’t need to yell; he knew how to strike fear into someone with his soft voice.
Sugiyama was omnipresent. He was where he had to be and he did what he had to do. He was so skilful that it was as if nothing ever happened. Everyone knew his name – guards and prisoners, Japanese and Korean – and feared and scorned it.
There was a guard who said he had seen seven bullet wounds on Sugiyama’s body. One guard claimed that Sugiyama was completely deaf in his left ear because a bomb had exploded right next to him. Another insisted that there was a fist-sized piece of shrapnel embedded in Sugiyama’s torso. These rumours were laid over his reticence, creating a sheen of truth.
The young student guard, Watanabe Yuichi, is tasked with investigating the murder. The authorities want to cover it up. They think his inexperience means he will do half a job, but Watanabe is a bookish sort, unsuited to military life. He discovers poems among Sugiyama’s effects. He finds confiscated works of literature that he used to read in his mother’s secondhand book shop among the papers of a prisoner. He uncovers an escape plot and a group of Koreans so brutalised by their treatment under Japanese rule that they have nothing to lose.
The story is a gripping one, written by a South Korean writer from the perspective of a Japanese prison guard, telling the story of the subjugation of Koreans by the Japanese, and the rise of Communism among Koreans in Japan. A lot of the language is poetic in the way it describes life in a prison, and the feelings of the guards and the imprisoned. Occasionally there is a dryness to the prose that I found more difficult to read. There was more of a sense of being at arm’s length from the action, floating above the surface rather than immersed in the story. I don’t know whether that’s down to the author wishing to relay some events without embellishment in order to make a contrast to the fluidity of his other narration, or down to the translation of the original Korean, or maybe a combination of the two. In the instance where Prisoner 331 Choi Chi-su recounts how he came to be in Fukuoka Prison, it felt like an attempt to get across the rationality people sometimes have to employ in order to speak of something deeply emotional and painful without breaking down.
The exchange between Choi and Watanabe that leads to Choi’s clinical narrative is both a bargain and a curse. Choi offers to tell Watanabe what he knows of Sugiyama, but not to help with the investigation.
‘Somebody needs to record what is going on here. So people will know what happened, when the war ends.’‘The regulations are to destroy documents after a certain time. No record exists forever.’
Prisoner 331 threw me a confident smile and pointed at my head. ‘At least what’s recorded in there won’t disappear. The walls of this terrible place will crumble and documents will burn, but the memories in your head will remain. So don’t you die until the war’s over!’ His eyes flashed.
Gradually, through encounters with others who have interacted closely with Sugiyama, Watanabe begins to piece together a surprising portrait of the murdered guard. He is both the brute that everyone knows him to be, the meter of punishments on which his reputation is built, and a man with an innate understanding of beauty who is seduced and uncovered by poetry and music. One prisoner in particular, the poet Yun Dong-ju, known as Prisoner 645 Hiranuma Tochu, gets under Sugiyama’s skin. Their encounters become like a game of chess, as Sugiyama tries to develop a strategy that brings Dong-ju down. Dong-ju’s skill with words changes Sugiyama, though. Through poetry and the classics, Dong-ju proves that there is something hidden in Sugiyama, that his outward self is underpinned by a gentler sensibility.
The story builds gradually, and I found that I needed to read it slowly to absorb what it was saying. It’s no ordinary murder mystery. Jung-Myung Lee pulls his threads together skilfully, using the interrogation chamber as the connector. Groups of prisoners are using each other just as much as Sugiyama is using Dong-ju. There’s something sensual about the relationship between the guard and his intellectual prisoner, centred as it is on the language of poetry. A similar relationship develops between Watanabe and Dong-ju as he peels away the crust of lies to discover who Sugiyama really was. A connection comes through a work by Rilke that Watanabe cached away in his mother’s shop, a book that Dong-ju came to own, but the connection between the two men runs deeper than the physicality of paper and ink. Watanabe’s heartbreak over Dong-ju’s mental decline, as a result of a medical experiment the prison authorities impose on the Korean prisoners, is tangible, as he realises how much he has come to rely on the poet for intellectual stimulation. Perhaps, too, I felt his anguish because Dong-ju’s decline reminded me of the way my mum has disappeared to dementia. The compliance with someone he thinks he should recognise but doesn’t. The shimmers of memory resurrected by particular words. Watanabe’s pain as he bears witness to the loss.
I’m not going to say anything more about the ending. The investigation of the murder isn’t what the book was about for me in the end.
Instead, I’ll finish with my favourite quote from the book, which reflects how I feel about literature. Dong-ju persuades Sugiyama to support him in his own attempt to escape the prison. It’s not the same escape that other prisoners seek.
‘I told you, I’m not leaving this place through a tunnel. I remain oppressed whether I’m in here or outside. Why escape hell for something worse?’
‘Then what were you doing?’
‘I wanted to escape in another way.’
Sugiyama snorted, but deep down he knew what Dong-ju was saying.