Friday, January 15, 2016

The Investigation, by J.M. Lee

Pan Books/Pan Macmillan, 2015
originally published 2012
translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim
323 pp


"So language wasn't simply a tool to convey meaning. It was the charter of a human being that contained a nation's history..."

I don't know if anyone else is guilty of this, but I have this very bad tendency to buy a book because it looks interesting, then shelving it right away to come back to later, only to forget that I have it.  I did that with this book until someone in the publishing industry posted his/her  list of best crime novels of 2015, and this book was on it. I remember thinking that at the time I bought it, it didn't really seem like a crime novel, and I thought the reference on the best-of list was kind of weird, so I plowed through the translated fiction shelves (which are actually the entirety of a repurposed walk-in closet in my office) found it, and decided I needed to read it. This post may have been intended originally for the crime page of this online reading journal, but the more I read into it, the less it appealed to me as a crime novel and more as a novel of historical fiction.  This proves to me that it's highly likely that whoever it was that had it down on his/her idea of the best of crime list probably had no clue what he/she was reading (which is scary when I think about it)   -- while there is definitely a crime involved here, it is not at all the central focus of this story.

I will say right up front that I really liked this book. Some things detracted from my reading, such as too much in the way of repetition (yes, we know that one of the main characters loved and was highly influenced by Rilke but we don't need to constantly be reminded),  and some seriously-obvious contrivances (especially in terms of the crime that frames the story) prevented me from oozing love over the book. And I know this will sound sort of weird, but here and there while reading I kept saying to myself "this is way too obvious," but then again, that's a me thing.   I will also say that once I got used to all of the distractions, I found a really, really good story here.

Yun Dong-Ju, Korean poet

The novel begins at the end of World War II, as the narrator,  Yuichi Watanabe, tells us. At the age of twenty, he  is "behind bars" at Fukuoka Prison, having exchanged his "brown guard uniform" for "red prisoner's garb" since the Americans (who have occupied Japan, of course), have "classified" him as "a low-level war criminal," charging him with abusing prisoners.  He doesn't deny that he's guilty; au contraire, he knows that yes, he has "yelled at them and beaten them," but he also realizes that part of his guilt was in as he says, "doing nothing." He "didn't prevent the unnecessary deaths of innocent people," he "was silent in the face of the insanity, " and he'd "closed" his "ears to the screams of the innocent."  Before the actual story begins, though, Watanabe clues in his readers to the fact that what he's about to say isn't solely about him, but rather
"about the war's destruction of the human race. This story is about both the people who lacked humanity and the purest of men. And it's about a bright star that crossed our dark universe 10,000 years ago...My story is about two people who met at Fukuoka Prison."
And thus begins the novel in full, comprising  Watanabe's story, which begins with the horrific murder of a prison guard who was also in charge of censorship duties.  Watanabe is tasked with the investigation into Sugiyama's death, but this young man, whose mother repaired and sold books and who developed a deep and abiding love of literature while growing up, is also tasked with Sugiyama's censorship duties, which to him are abhorrent. It is an interesting setup, really, because while the investigation of the crime acts as a frame getting us into the workings of the prison, underneath all of that is the story of the last days of a Korean "resistance" poet named Yun Dong-Ju, (1917-1945)  who was arrested supposedly for political activities, but in my opinion ( at least via this book), his only major crime was being Korean.  It is also a story about the power of literature to transform even the hardest of souls, about the enduring legacy of literature, about freedom, about different forms of both resistance and oppression, and about the plight of the Koreans under Japanese colonial rule.  As Watanabe tells us regarding Yun (but really, speaking for all Koreans),
 "he was no longer free, but he hadn't ever known how it felt to be free; no Korean was free."  
One of the very best things I discovered  about this entire book is the author's focus on language.  As just one example, Koreans were not allowed to use their own names; instead they were required to take Japanese names and in the prison, at least, were punished if they tried to use their real ones. Some wonderful scenes occur in the novel around this terrible law, but there are many, many others as well  that combine language and the concept of resistance to produce some incredible moments here.

Aside from my grievances about the detractors I've  listed (which obviously are personal to me and may not bother anyone else), I was actually very impressed with The Investigation and it really is one of those books that's stuck with me. I read it over the course of two long plane rides and a two-hour layover (I had my nose stuck in it even while eating normally-forbidden Tex-Mex in Dallas) and couldn't put it down.  It's one I can definitely recommend -- it is a lovely yet horrific  portrait of a bygone era, one that is not forgotten and which still resonates I would think, especially among Koreans.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

first post of the year -- The Dead Letter and the Figure Eight, by Metta Fuller Victor (aka Seeley Register)

Duke University Press, 2003
388 pp


Two very obscure American novels are to be found here together in one volume: The Dead Letter (1866) and The Figure Eight (1869).  What's culturally and historically significant about this volume is that The Dead Letter is actually, according to Catherine Ross Nickerson in her work The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, "the first American detective novel." (29).  Both books are also, as she notes,
"documents of a moment in cultural history when the young professional seemed to hold the promise of mediating between the cloudy-minded nostalgia of the landed class and the unprincipled greed of the merchant and capitalist classes."  (31)
While there's definitely a LOT going on between the lines and a lot going on here that is discussion worthy,  these books are also fun reads for anyone interested in American literature of this period that won't likely be found on any general American Lit course syllabus.  For someone like myself who loves these old books and who tries to read between the lines as to the cultural climate (especially in terms of women and the relationships between the main characters and other ethnic groups) , the politics, and the historical significance of the time in which they were written, it is a goldmine.   On the other hand, they're definitely not for everyone, but if for no other reason, the fact that Metta Fuller Victor made an appearance before Anna Katherine Green (who I've always believed was the first American detective novelist) makes her extremely readworthy. 

 I've posted about these two books at my crime page; more about the author herself can be found at my newest project, Forgotten Females Found.   

(from LibraryThing

Saturday, January 2, 2016

... paved with good intentions: 2016 plans

What does a person do when she is too fond of reading and books have addled her brain? In my case the love of the written word spurs me on to buy more, even though I have so many now that I'll never get them all read.  That definitely defines the word addled in my case. A smart person would read what she has, and then buy more, but no one's ever accused me of being smart. So I have great intentions for my reading life this year, but as they say about the road...

I'm kind of thinking along these lines:

  1.   I am planning to read more 19th century American fiction, then make the move into the early  20th century, discovering those novels that rarely make it on to become the stuff of literature classes. I didn't mean for that to happen in 2015, but I had such fun with them last year (for the most part) that I want to do it again, while
  2.  rotating in some translated fiction since there is really a lot of great stuff out there just waiting to be read; and then there are the crime reads, which this year will focus on
  3. books that have been made into movies -- with some exceptions, mostly older novels and older movies (I discovered the Criterion collection on Hulu this year so the choices are pretty much huge)  while still focusing on
  4. obscure women writers of crime novels, and then finally there is the
  5. darker fiction that I love reading, where I'm thinking about reading out of the mainstream, focusing on work from smaller presses or from the past.  
Then again my plans could all go belly up as new fiction is released, so committing myself might be folly. 

To everyone: a happy reading year, filled with great books, great health, and inner peace.