The Investigation is a rare hybrid; a novel which owes its predominant rhythm to poetry, a novel teeming with epic visual tableaux yet confined to a prison and, finally, a novel which beautifully leavens the repeat cycles of torture with aesthetic flights of fancy.
Lee wastes no time setting the scene: Sugiyama, a sadistic Japanese guard at Fukuoka Prison in the penultimate year of the Second World War, is murdered, and a book loving fellow guard, Watanabe, is given the unwelcome task of finding the guilty party in the cesspool.
It seems, after routine enquiries at the small prison which houses mainly Korean dissidents and nationalists, that Watanabe has found the probable suspect, Choi Ci-su, a vociferous and violent leader of the Korean independence movement.
But, as still waters run deep, his intuition that there is more to the murder of Sugiyama than meets the eye is rewarded after an encounter with a stunningly gifted pianist.
She reveals that Sugiyama, known for beating insect-thin prisoners to a pulp for minor indiscretions, became a sensitive soul in the countdown to meeting his maker. Goddam it, the brute even loved poetry.
A quarter of the way through the novel, Lee abruptly waves his wand and we are drawn into a menage-a-trois involving a bibliophile, a patriotic poet and a dead man who shares the surname of the doomed Japanese Minister of War.
There are several mesmeric asides: the planning of a peace concert in the Fukuoka hell hole, a one dimensional governor whose ambition and greed know no limits, a little girl on the other side of the wall whose kite becomes involved in aerial dog fights and – finally – there is poetry.
Lots of poetry, and much of it is quite extraordinary because the source is legendary Korean writer Yun Dong-ju, with translations of famous poems like The Sky, the Wind, the Stars and Poetry, which are easy on the Western eye.
I imagine that Yun Dong-ju was the Korean Neruda of his day: the verse is as vivid as a haiku, and introduced casually and cleverly by Lee as a trickle before it becomes a torrent.
We witness the unlikely transformation of Sugiyama, who moonlights as the prison censor, reading the poems for the first time: The Investigation strays into a tug of war between his road to Damocles conversion, and Dong-yu’s yearning for freedom. Poetry segues the antagonists, a la the postman and the poet in Il Postino.
The battleground is memory, where each steals a march. As Dong-yu explains, a poem bound by logic, becomes meaningless. The Investigation is a beguiling and endlessly rewarding novel, replete with charm, but I am mindful that a casual disclosure in a review might reveal too much.
Finishing it was a tantamount to bereavement.