The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee

The Investigation‘The Investigation’ by Jung-Myung Lee and translated by Chi-Young Kim is only the second book translated from Korean into English to ever be longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its twenty-five year history. Set in Japan during the Second World War, it tells the story of Watanabe, a literature student and guard at Fukouka prison which holds anti-Japanese Korean rebels, intellectuals and dissidents. Watanabe is attempting to find the criminal behind the brutal murder of the much-loathed prison censor and war hero, Sugiyama. However, he is unconvinced by an early confession from one of the most notorious inmates and after taking over the role of prison censor himself, his investigation starts to unravel a very different side to Sugiyama.

I’ve read a fair amount of Japanese fiction as well as the extremely dense ‘Decoded‘ by Chinese author Mai Jia last year but I think this is the first novel translated from Korean that I have ever read. Lee is a hugely popular author in South Korea and ‘The Investigation’ was one of the IFFP longlisted books which immediately caught my eye as the kind of literary mystery I would probably enjoy reading. It has been widely compared to ‘The Shadow of the Wind‘ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and it’s certainly a book which would appeal to many bibliophiles.

The murder investigation is used more as a device rather than the driving force behind the plot and it is primarily a mystery rather than a whodunnit. The story itself is a fictionalised account of the life and death of Korean poet Yun Dong-ju who was arrested in Japan in 1943 for resistance against Japanese imperialism and served his sentence in Fukouka prison. The lyrical descriptions of the brutality of prison life carry a haunting and melancholic tone throughout while the message that literature can bring hope to the most nightmarish of places is moving and compelling.

However, I think ‘The Investigation’ shares many of the flaws of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ in that the parts which explored the meaning and power of poetry felt quite heavy-handed at times and could have been handled a bit more subtly. There are some very obvious metaphors with too much “telling” and not enough “showing” the reader how important books and reading are to the characters. I’m also not sure that the poetry itself which features in the story translates particularly well into English. Maybe this is because I’m generally not very interested in poetry, but I didn’t find it very inspiring and it didn’t add much to the story.

Having recently read IFFP longlisted books with hugely evocative settings and characters including ‘The Dead Lake‘ and ‘In the Beginning Was the Sea‘, I think it’s unlikely that ‘The Investigation’ stands out enough to make it on to the shortlist. It’s an enjoyable and sometimes moving novel but not a truly exceptional one.

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9 responses to “The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee

  1. I shall approach this with cautious curiosity given your and Tony’s reactions. I have never read any Korean literature either and I do like poetry but the translation of verse adds a different level of complexity.

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  2. O Chonghui is a known short story writer in Korea. In 2013 I read and reviewed an anthology of his short stories “River of Fire”. As you found in this work (although with poetry), the translations of the stories feel short for me. The translators were also highly regarded, so I was not sure if it was me, cultural differences, the translation, or just the stories themselves.

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    • Yes, I just felt that there was a good concept behind the story but it didn’t quite work in practice. I suspect that there is nothing technically wrong with the translation itself, it’s just that the poetry came across as rather clunky. Perhaps because it rhymed in Korean or had a completely different rhythm whereas in English it comes across as a string of random phrases? It’s interesting that you encountered something similar in the short stories you read.

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  3. I felt the same way as you about this book. I virtually abandoned it (although I did skim read to find out how it ended). There were some strong sections in it, but I found the poetry dry and found the plot dragged terribly. Such a shame as it had a lot of potential.

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    • Yes, there was an interesting concept behind the story but it wasn’t executed in the way that I had hoped. Having reflected on this a bit more since I wrote my review, I think it’s more likely that the translation is correct on a technical level but when it comes to poetry, the language barrier means that things like rhyme and rhythm are difficult – if not impossible – to translate. For me, the English version of the poetry came across as a string of random phrases which didn’t seem very meaningful but I’m sure it’s wonderful in Korean!

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  4. Pingback: The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky | A Little Blog of Books

  5. Pingback: The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist 2015 | A Little Blog of Books

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