Lee Jung-myung: The Investigation
Translated by Kim Chi-young
Mantle, 2014, 288pp
The central character in The Investigation is a real historical figure: Yun Dong-ju, a poet who had the misfortune to live in the Japanese colonial period. There can be few worse fates for a poet than to be prohibited from writing in his native tongue, though Yun’s additional misfortune was to be accused of being involved in a Korean independence movement, for which he was jailed in a Japanese prison, where he died in 1945.
From these historical facts Lee Jung-myung has created a novel which has been well received for its delicate appreciation of the power of the written word and its extensive quotes from Yun Dong-ju’s published poetry. This is indeed the novel’s strong point. For the remainder, this is a book with slender plot in which a brutal illiterate Japanese prison guard finds himself implausibly converted to poetry by the (Japanese) language skills of Yun Dong-ju, the least troublesome of the many Korean inmates at the prison. When the brutal guard is found murdered, a young Japanese conscript is told he has to find the killer, and a convenient suspect is soon found.
The conscript, for reasons which are not entirely clear, remains suspicious that the wrong man has been found guilty, and for a rather over-long central section of the novel the conscript learns more about the murdered guard’s bond with the Korean poet. This is the section you will either love or hate. Even if you believe in the possibility that language can change a person, you may become weary of the frequent passages which read like essays in literature appreciation. And if poetry isn’t your thing, you’ll be wanting the story to pick up its tempo a little and focus more on the murder investigation itself.
The problem for those wanting a detective story is that most of the revelations which aid the unraveling of the mystery are confessions by the characters involved, though at least one of these is not what it seems.
The plot later accelerates, boosted by an unlikely subplot straight from a Manchurian Western and a well-signposted twist involving the prison hospital, and you reach the end feeling strangely cheated.
I really wish that I could like this book more, given the number of enthusiastic reviews written on Goodreads and Amazon. As a work which explores the transforming power of poetry it feels heavy-handed, and as a detective novel it feels strangely lightweight.