Set in a Japanese prison during the Second World War, The Investigation is the story of two prison guards and their separate dealings with a young prisoner – a fictionalised version of the well-respected Korean poet Yun Dong-ju. The novel is inspired by his life, works and death, placing his wistful and hopeful poems within the text for both us and the characters to discover.
The novel begins with a well-educated young guard called Watanabe taking up the role of censor in the prison, as well as being tasked with finding the murderer of his predecessor, Sugiyama. On the surface, Sugiyama was a brutal bully, vicious and prone to sudden and excessive violence. As Watanabe starts interviewing prisoners, he starts to peel back the layers both within the prison system and those obscuring Sugiyama’s past. One particular prisoner he keeps back to is the young Korean poet, and the two spar over their love of literature as Watanabe tries to tie everything together. The plot progresses very naturally, each new discovery taking Watanabe further down the rabbit hole as he treads in Sugiyama’s footprints. There is more to Sugiyama’s murder than a simple case of revenge, and he starts to discover escape tunnels, hidden messages as well as a horrifying secret that seems to implicate the very management of the prison.
From a literary point of view, it is unpretentious and uncomplicated, letting the poet’s words speak for themselves rather than obscuring it. Watanabe’s love for prose and poetry shines through, as he breathlessly describes his joy at recalling certain passages from literary greats, all while being forced to incinerate them against his will and nature. Life soon starts to take a turn for the worst for the characters, and the last section of the novel is quite heartbreaking, made all the more poignant by Yun Dong-ju’s optimism and belief in the power of words.
It’s a moving novel, and like The Shawshank Redemption before it, beautifully shows how hope can be kept alive in the most depressing and oppressive places, and how literature and the act of helping people can take you beyond the walls that hold you back.