Mantle/Macmillan, £16.99 (about $26.00) 325 pages, ISBN 978-0-230-76871-0
Mention “World War II Prison Stories” in any group and the resulting discussion will invariably focus around one of three classic and much admired movies: Stalag 17, The Great Escape, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. But, if you’re willing to do more than sit on the couch with a dazed look and the TV remote in hand, if you’ll take the time to find and read this week’s novel—you’ll be introduced to an author who’s wildly popular and influential in Asia. His name is Jung-Myung Lee, and he’s the author of a newly translated novel entitled The Investigation.
The story is based upon real events which took place in Fukuoka Prison in 1944. Fukuoka is a maximum security facility housing hardened criminals mixed together with political prisoners, who are mostly ‘filthy Koreans who spread sedition and lies about the Emperor and the Japanese Empire’ according to Watanabe Yuichi, the narrator and book loving young guard who is assigned the impossible task of investigating the murder of Sugiyama Dozan. He was the most brutal, feared and merciless guard in the entire prison . . . despised by all, guards and inmates alike. Soon after Watanbe begins his investigation, a hard-core prisoner confesses to the murder, but after interviewing him and finding a hand-written poem in Sugiyama’s pocket, Watanabe thinks that the confession is a lie and continues digging into the mystery. What he finds is that many hidden events are taking place within and without the violent penitentiary walls, including a man who’s determined to let nothing stop him from digging his way out, a governor whose greed is limitless, a young girl with a kite trying to make friends wherever she can, a terrible, vicious guard who isn’t what he appears to be, and Yun Dong-Ju, a Korean poet whose “works hold such beauty they can break your heart.”
The Investigation is a complex, beautiful and enlightening work that will illuminate an obscure, but brilliant poet, while showing the reader that beauty and genius are indefatigable and found in the unlikeliest of places. Dark and brooding at times, it’s moving and always entertaining as well.