Book Review: The Investigation by Lee Jung-myung (이정명)

The year is 1944, and while the Second World War grinds on, within the walls of the Fukuoka Prison in Japan, a young prison guard, Watanabe Yuichi, is charged with investigating a murder. The victim? One of the prison’s most brutal and notorious guards, Sugiyama, a man feared and despised for his brutality towards the prison’s inmates.

Yuichi is aware that he’s been chosen to investigate precisely because he is young and relatively inexperienced, and what he’s asked to do, essentially, is just to sign off on the paperwork and prevent a police investigation. But when Yuichi finds two poems – first, in the pocket of the dead man’s uniform, then another in the drawer of the desk where he acted as censor for the wing of the prison that houses Koreans accused of being “thought criminals” and Korean nationalists (opposed to the Korean occupation of Japan and working towards an independent Korea), Yuichi finds himself wondering about the true nature of the guard.

The power of words and stories form a central theme in Lee’s book. Watanabe Yuichi describes the moment when he receives a red note with his army draft notice on it: “One line of text was powerful enough to turn the world upside down and destroy lives.” His life as a prison guard removed him completely from the world of books he previously inhabited both as a student, and as the son of a mother who ran a book store. “My soul,” he laments, “was perpetually malnourished.”

It’s words, too, that lead Watanabe Yuichi to Prisoner 331, Choi Chi-Su, in his investigation of Sugiyama’s murder, and when Yuichi teases out the reason behind Choi’s repeat visits to solitary confinement, Choi confesses to the murder of Sugiyama. But Choi, too, understands the power of story, and when he decides to confess, he insists on having Yuichi write down his story precisely. “You have to record what I say,” he tells Yuichi, “word for word.” Choi wants Yuichi to be a witness to the events taking place at the prison. “You’re interested in the stories. About me. About the prison.”

It’s a word – or, rather, a name – dropped by Choi that eventually leads Yuichi to the author of one of the poems in Sugiyama’s possession: “Hiranuma Tochi” – Prisoner 645 – perhaps better known by his Korean name, Yun Dong-ju. One of Fukuoka Prison’s most famous inmates was, of course, the legendary Korean poet Yun Dong-ju, who died there in February of 1945. Yun plays a significant role in The Investigation.

The poems found in Sugiyama’s possession also lead Yuichi to discover more about Sugiyama’s true nature. On the surface, he was a brutal enforcer and censor, quick to bash heads and break bones. But Yuichi recognizes the poem in Sugiyama’s pocket when he hears the prison infirmary nurse, Iwanami Midori, practicing Schubert’s Die Winterreise. This recognition leads him to question Midori about Sugiyama. “He was a sensitive man,” she tells Yuichi. “He knew music, appreciated poetry and loved life.” Sugiyama, it turns out, was previously a piano tuner, and he restored the prison piano to a playable state so that Midori could play it. Yuichi finds Midori’s insights into Sugiyama almost incomprehensible. Sugiyama methodically and ruthlessly destroyed the books and papers and writings of the prisoners in his role as a censor. Midori’s revelation that Sugiyama loved poetry leads Yuichi to believe that, perhaps, the young poet Hiranuma (Yun Dong-ju) must know something about the murder of Sugiyama.

Because it’s the poems of Yun Dong-ju that make a profound difference to the life of prison guard and censor Sugiyama. Sugiyama’s first encounter with the poems – reading them out of curiosity – leaves him breathless and confused. Sugiyama thought of writers and poets as “arrogant and clueless”, peddlers of dreams and hope. Sugiyama begins to slowly be won over by Yun Dong-ju, as Yun begins writing postcards for other prisoners to send home, using his considerable skills as a writer to both avoid censorship of any phrases that might be considered seditious, and phrase things carefully to catch the interest of the censor Sugiyama. Yun carefully reels Sugiyama in, much like in the kite fights that take place between the prisoners and the mysterious girl outside the prison walls. Each postcard is a step towards some kind of understanding between the guard and his prisoner. Yun understands the deeper truth about the guard, that what lies beneath the surface of the man nicknamed “The Butcher” is someone who understands and loves “the secrets harboured by words”.

Ultimately, The Investigation is a book that explores the human response to war and its brutalities. Yun Dong-ju, we are told, believes that “language was the only tool with which to reveal the barbarism of war. Only the purest language could testify about the most brutal era.” The guard Sugiyama comes to understand this, and sets out to see that Yun’s poems – and Yun himself – can survive the war. Language, Sugiyama comes to understand, “wasn’t simply a tool to convey meaning. It was the charter of a human being that contained a nation’s history.” Koreans like Yun Dong-ju were, under Japanese occupation, required to take on Japanese names if they wanted to attend a Japanese university, and forced to write in Japanese. Destroying language is an excellent means to destroying a whole culture, a whole nation. And the subtle shifts in the relationships between the poet and each of the guards are signalled by their willingness to call him by his Korean name rather than by his assumed Japanese one.

Sugiyama’s murder and its subsequent investigation hides a number of brutal truths about what really is going on in Fukuoka prison, truths that eventually bring about the downfall of the young and naïve Watanabe Yuichi. Lee’s writing is rich with historical details, which add layers to understanding without overwhelming the reader; it is fittingly poetic, and translator Kim Chi-Young (who also translated Lee’s The Boy Who Escaped Paradise as well as Shin Kyung-sook’s award-winning Please Look after Mom) does a fine job of preserving that poetry and finesse. Readers expecting a true thriller may find themselves disappointed, but those interested in this period of history will find Lee’s book engaging and, yes, thrilling in its use of language and poetry. And Lee has inspired me to finally learn more about poet Yun Dong-ju, whose work, up until now, I’d only read in snippets. Yun’s body of work is not extensive – but it is breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty, and it is not in the least bit surprising that even a brutal guard of the likes of Sugiyama could not fail to be moved by it. The Investigation is also my introduction to the work of the immensely popular Lee Jung-myung (several of whose works have been adapted as dramas, including, most famously, The Deep Rooted Tree), and I cannot wait to discover more of his writing.

Just the facts

  • Title: The Investigation
  • Author: Lee Jung-myung (이정명)
  • Publisher: Mantle Books
  • Year published: 2014

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