The Investigation is classified as a mystery, but the mystery takes last place to the tragic war story, the stunning prose and crystalline poetry. The poetry was written by the very real Yun Dong-ju who was interned in a prison in Japan during World War II and seamlessly incorporated into this fictional re-imagination of his imprisonment there.
Watanbe Yuichi is a brand new prison guard, fresh from training, diffident, unsure and eager to please. When a fellow guard is murdered, Watanbe is placed in charge of the investigation despite his inexperience, an indication that those in power are probably not vested in success. They also appoint him to replace the murder victim, Sugiyama, as official censor.
In one of the more allegorical elements of the story, Sugiyama was appointed the censor because he was illiterate. The warden arranged for him to learn to read and write so he could be the censor. The concept of the illiterate as censor seems apt, as censorship is a form of anti-literacy. However, Sugiyama was a more sophisticated reader than they supposed he would be.
Watanbe is certain there is more to the mystery when he finds a poem in Sugiyama’s pocket. It offers a new light on his character, perhaps he is not the brutal guard that he seemed to be. As Watanbe investigates he uncovers how Sugiyama’s brutality was leavened by his love of poetry and how he balanced these impulses.
His investigation, though, is cut short by an unexpected and unlikely confession. Certainly the pieces fit, but they feel wrong, so as he continues in his new work as censor, he keeps quietly investigating. Through this he comes to know Yun Dong-ju and admire and respect him. Dong-ju’s poetry transforms him as it did Sugiyama.
Though there is so much grim brutality, this is a story full of beauty, not ugliness. The salvation and beauty of an anonymous friendship between prisoner and an unseen little girl, all their conversations carried out by kites dancing in the air over the prison. The still beauty of Dong-ju’s poetry that captures the prosaic and elevates it to something magical and life-changing. The kindness and artistry of a nurse/pianist who engineers a performance rich in subtext. All this is in contrast to the harsh ugliness of the prison, the brutality of the guards, the venality of the prison officers, and of course, the cruel oppression of the Koreans by the Japanese and the horrors of war.
That J. M. Lee could write a novel about so much horror and yet what remains is memory is so much beauty is astonishing. This is a five paws book that I happily recommend to all.