Lee Jung-Myung has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his books in his native Korea. One, Deep Rooted Tree, was made into a popular TV series.
Ayo Onatade – What made you decide to write a novel using Yun Dong-Ju’s poetry in The Investigation?
Lee Jung-Myung - In 1989 during a trip to Kyoto I didn’t at that time understand Japanese very well but I met a student and he became my guide and subsequently my friend. He took me to Doshisha University where I saw a statue that has been raised in memorial for him. My friend was a junior student to Yung Dong Yu at the university but had never heard of him. Yung Dong Yu was arrested by Japanese police and died in jail at the age of 27. I went to the Doshisha Library and found two collections of poetry one in Korean and the other translated into Japanese. I had to read the poems in the library and my friend also felt that he should have known about Yung Dong Ju and read his work. I then felt that I should study both the Japanese and South Korean versions of his poems more closely. After I left the university I never for got the experience. Whilst I worked as a journalist I was determined to find out why he died so young but I never expected to write about him. He is quite famous in South Korea and there is nothing new to write about him.
After writing seven novels I realised that I still hadn’t forgotten about him so I decided that if I was not going to write about his life then I should write about his death instead. There was no information available about his death and that only a few people knew about him.
AO – Comparisons have been made with your novel to Carlos Ruiz’s Shadow of the Wind & Shawshank Redemption. Do you think this is fair?
LJM - In some ways it makes sense. I think there are common themes within each book but there are other themes in The Investigation. The story is about silence and the victim, crime and punishment, humanity and barbarian. I like the fact that my book is being compared to Shadow of the Wind and Shawshank Redemption however I also hope that UK readers will enjoy the book and the themes.
AO - How would you like The Investigation to be remembered?
LJM - I hope that it comforts and heals readers because we live in a harsh world. The difficult situation that we have and live in with the economic crises with the rich verses the poor, racial discrimination and poverty. All society’s problems are characteristic of the book. The characters confront one another but by the end of the novel confront the cruelty together. They didn’t have anything to use but poetry and music to confront guns and knives. I believe that readers can be healed.
AO - What are your views on the war and had they changed by the time you had finished writing The Investigation.
LJM - It was the darkest history in most of Korea as the Japanese invasion lasted thirty-six years and they banned the use of the Korean language. It was the harshest period. There was however a tiny slip of light as most Koreans expected independence. Young Koreans registered to join the Japanese. Yung decided to study in Japan. He wanted to study the military technique and wanted to fight the Japanese. South Korea is now seen as a developing country. Personally the war should not have taken place under any circumstances.
AO - What are you working on at the moment?
LJM - I am working on a novel with the title The Boy who Escaped from Paradise. It is a story about a North Korean who escaped a North Korean prison camp. The hero is a twelve-year-old autistic boy who is a gifted mathematician who escapes to China and then wanders around the world for a period of 8 years. He confronts the world filled with evil with his own talented insight. He solved problems with numbers and maths. Numbers are the key clue.
AO - Why Paradise?
LJM - Paradise is a metaphor for North Korea. North Korea insists its country is “Paradise” whereas this is not the case. More and more people are trying to escape that paradise. I think that the second book is more interesting than The Investigation.
The Investigation by Lee Jung-Myung
Publisher: Mantle (27 Mar 2014)
Fukuoka Prison, 1944. Beyond the prison walls the war rages; inside a man is found brutally murdered. Yuichi Watanabe, a young guard with a passion for reading, is ordered to investigate. The victim, Sugiyama - also a guard - was feared and despised throughout the prison and inquiries have barely begun when a powerful inmate confesses. But Watanabe is unconvinced; and as he interrogates both the suspect and Yun Dong-ju, a talented Korean poet, he begins to realise that the fearsome guard was not all he appeared to be . . . As Watanabe unravels Sugiyama's final months, he begins to discover what is really going on inside this dark and violent institution, which few inmates survive: a man who will stop at nothing to dig his way to freedom; a governor whose greed knows no limits; a little girl whose kite finds her an unlikely friend. And Yun Dong-ju - the poet whose works hold such beauty they can break the hardest of hearts. As the war moves towards its devastating close and bombs rain down upon the prison, Watanabe realises that he must find a way to protect Yun Dong-ju, no matter what it takes. This decision will lead the young guard back to the investigation - where he will discover a devastating truth . . .
Photo © Ayo Onatade 2014