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Longlisted for the 2017 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, South Korean author Jung-myung Lee’s novel, “The Investigation” (translated by Chi-young Kim), is said to be inspired by a true story, which is perhaps stretching things a bit far. In 1943, real-life Korean poet Dong-ju Yun was studying in Kyoto when he was arrested for “anti-Japanese activity” and sent to a prison in Fukuoka, where he died at age 27. Novelists love a healthy amount of uncertainty into which they can insert themselves and build a plot, and Yun’s death provides Lee with plenty of room for speculation. Set in Fukuoka Prison in 1944, this claustrophobic Dostoevskian novel is both a gripping murder mystery and a moving evocation of the power literature has to provide light in the darkest of places.

The Investigation, by Jung-myung Lee
Translated by Chi-young Kim
336 pages
PAN MACMILLAN

Outside the prison walls, war rages as American bombs fall ever closer, while inside, life is a microcosm of the conflict. The guards are all Japanese; the prisoners all Korean. Brutality is the order of the day, with Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula played out in the prison’s cells and interrogation rooms. Inmates are physically abused and have medical experiments conducted upon them. They are forced to adopt Japanese names and are only allowed to correspond in Japanese. The very act of writing in Korean is regarded as subversive, so all books and writing materials are confiscated. Poetry is an act of rebellion. Every piece of discovered literature is treasured.

The prison’s brutality is led by Dozan Sugiyama, the much-feared guard whose murder sparks the titular investigation. Yuichi Watanabe, the young recruit given the role of detective, soon focuses on Yun as a key to the whole mystery. Escape attempts and forced confessions muddy the waters, as does a corrupt governor and the fact that justice for Dozan is the last thing anyone in the prison cares about. Yuichi solves the crime — you can’t have a murder investigation without answering whodunnit — but by the time Yuichi gets his man, it hardly matters anymore. The further into prison secrets Yuichi delves, the more his eyes are opened to the humanity of his dehumanised enemies and the more he finds that Dozan wasn’t the vicious animal he seemed to be.

“The Investigation” is a book about the power of the imagination to keep hope alive. Among all the violence, it is the suppression of language and the thought that his poetry may disappear upon his death that cut the deepest for Yun. In real life, over 100 of his poems survived and some were posthumously published in the collection “Sky, Wind and Stars.” In an act of creative generosity, Lee attributes this in part to Yun’s Japanese guards.

For all the horror and misery in “The Investigation,” its message is one of hope: Literature proves to be profoundly subversive, just not in the way the oppressors believe.

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