South Korean Novelist Plays America (Nods to Camus and Homer)

Eventually, J.M. Lee may or may not write the Great South Korean Novel.

J.M. Lee

It’s probably not fair to look to at a country’s taste in popular literature in order to trace the contours of its national sensibility. Most Americans probably wouldn’t want our collective psyche judged solely in light of our enthusiasm for the Stephen King canon (although, lately, that proposition might result in some fascinating conclusions). Still, it can be interesting to take a look at books that have caught on with the masses within a particular culture.

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J.M. Lee (aka “Jung-myung Lee”) is a best-selling South Korean writer whose novels have also been turned into Korean films and TV series. In the past few years, Pegasus Books has released English-language versions of two of his works: The Investigation in 2015 and The Boy Who Escaped Paradise in 2016. (Earlier this month, the publishing house released a paperback edition of the latter work.)

These books straddle the gap between literary and pop fiction. They’re both, to a degree, genre lit, and both owe much to Western literary models. The Investigation is a whodunit, while Boy is an international adventure story that also includes an unsolved homicide case. And yet, Lee seems intent on doing something more substantive than just spinning in-demand yarns and raking in the won. The Investigation is based on the last days of real-life Korean poet Yun Dong-ju, and its pages are sprinkled with his poems. Boy is an odyssey in which the protagonist-narrator (a young refugee from North Korea) regularly alludes to the original, Homeric epic.

The books (both of which have English translations by Chi-Young Kim) share further similarities. The Investigation takes place almost entirely within a Japanese prison, while a large section of Boy is set in a North Korean prison camp. And, with both novels, Lee seems interested in looking at all of Korea — that is, in viewing the North and South as halves of a larger whole that shares a common history. The Investigation is set during the last days of WWII, before the nation was split by civil strife. And Boy’s peripatetic protagonist starts out in Pyongyang and (spoiler alert) winds up (presumably) flying to Seoul at novel’s end.

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The Allure of the Linguistic

Of the two novels, The Investigation is the more serious work, and the more accomplished. Although its plot has many of the typical twists, turns, surprises and reversals one finds in a classic mystery story, the book’s true focus is on the moral quandaries people face in a world where their agency is limited, as well as on the power that language has to, at least partially, give even a bleak life meaning.

Brimming with glamorized grittiness.

In an interview with, Lee revealed that Albert Camus is the novelist he most admires. That’s not surprising. The Investigation touches on familiar existential themes. It shows humans in crisis as they try to live up to standards they’ve set for themselves — sometimes succeeding and sometimes missing the mark.

Korean poet Yun Dong-Ju

The book’s narrator, Watanabe Yuichi, is the story’s unlikely Hercule Poirot. He’s a young Japanese liberal arts student who has been drafted into the army and is employed as a guard at a Fukuoka prison where a number of Korean convicts, including Yun Dong-Ju, are being held. The mystery he’s tasked with solving involves the murder of a brutal guard and prison censor named Sugiyama, who is found hanging from a crossbeam, blood dripping down the length of his body. As Yuichi learns more about the events leading up to the murder, Lee takes liberties with the narrative point-of-view, flashing back to scenes between Dong-ju and Sugiyama. These scenes suggest that there was more to the apparently heartless guard than initially met the eye. We’re witness to a developing friendship of sorts between Sugiyama and the intelligent, quiet poet. The guard begins to learn from the prisoner about the power of poetry:

Sugiyama suddenly regretted learning how to read and write, as it had made him read [Dong-ju’s] poems He could sense his former self falling away; he was no longer a cold guard or a strict censor. He was now an excitable boy who couldn’t wait to become a poet.

The transformation of Sugiyama calls on readers to summon the same sort of suspension of disbelief needed to accept the reformation of Moll Flanders and Ebeneezer Scrooge. But Lee, fortunately, has his own word-magic at hand to make it all seem plausible.

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Pyongyang Noir

The Boy Who Escaped Paradise shares some of the same concerns and themes as The Investigation, but at its core it’s more a straight-ahead adventure tale. It begins in 2009 in NYC, where a North Korean defector named Steve Yoon is found shot to death in a residence in Queens. The man being held for questioning in the killing becomes the book’s protagonist and narrator. He’s Ahn Gil-mo, a young North Korean math genius with Asperger syndrome. He’s also the son of an undertaker who was, scandalously, discovered to be secretly Christian. As a child, Gil-mo went to prison camp with his disgraced father. There, amid great deprivation and cruelty, he was drawn to a young girl named Yong-ae, with whom he established what he believed to be an unbreakable, lifelong bond.

Writers, Lee has said, are like marathoners who “have no one waiting for them at the finish line.”

The bulk of the novel is a long flashback through the protagonist’s adventures as he comes of age. Gil-mo is exploited for his talent for mathematics by unsavory characters both inside and outside North Korea. He escapes from the prison camp and lives among the kotjebi: desperately hungry, often-criminal street orphans. Further misadventures — including stints as a drug mule and professional gambler — take him to Shanghai, Macau, Seoul, and Mexico. Gil-mo travels in pursuit of the lost Yong-ae, who turns up here and there along the way, transformed, variously, to prostitute, lounge singer, alleged spy, and all-around femme fatale. Gil-mo, by contrast, retains a sort of vague asexuality. At one point he spends the night with Yong-ae at her Macauan residence. But Lee is coy about sleeping arrangements: “That night,” says Gil-mo, “I lay curled in her room, swimming through the dark ocean of silence.” (So, where was Yong-ae at this point? Bunking in the bathtub?)

Other encounters between the pair have a sort of hardboiled film noir aura — brimming with glamorized grittiness — as in this exchange in a Chinese villa:

[Yong-ae] frowned. She reached over and took my glass and gulped the rest of my drink. “So you’ve been searching for me all this time?”

Her voice sounded annoyed. Was it wrong for me to look for her? I must have looked puzzled.

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “We were friends once, sure. But now our lives are headed in different directions. I’m free and wealthy now, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to maintain that.”

“I’ll do the same, then,” I said. ‘I’ll be freer and wealthier, too.”

Yong-ae narrowed her eyes. “That doesn’t suit you. You’re too good. I’m not….”

This is almost a parody of American detective fiction or of a hardboiled Hollywood photoplay featuring Barbara Stanwyck drenched in shadow. But, elsewhere, there are some dazzling moments in the writing. Lee creates indelible characters, including Dash, one of Gil-mo’s fellow kotjebe, whose weight fluctuates in sync with his fortunes. He is Artful Dodger to Gil-mo’s Oliver Twist. Then there’s Kunlun, a physically enormous cocaine king, nicknamed after a mountain range. A loner (aside from his pet parrot), Kunlun “would be sunny but suddenly cloud over, morphing quickly into a blizzard.”

With Boy, Lee (and Chi-Young Kim) are, I think, at their poetic best when dealing with things earthy and visceral, as in a scene in which the malnourished Gil-mo and Dash gorge themselves giddily on wild strawberries.

We laughed, passing gas with each guffaw. We pulled our pants down to take a shit on a low hill. The sky was touching our behinds as the grass tickled our backs. Our shit was speckled with small red seeds.

While Lee is clearly sickened by injustices inside North Korea, he seems also to be skeptical about capitalistic excesses in other realms that Gilm-mo visits. He allows his protagonist to remain immune to greed, at least in part because of the Asperger syndrome. The bottom line means less to Gil-mo than the beauty of numbers as they exist within complicated equations. It’s math for math’s sake, and it’s a hallowed thing.

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In the Running

I enjoyed both of Lee’s books for their fast-moving narrative brio. He seldom if ever lets a scene wear out its welcome. According to the interview, the author is a dedicated long-distance runner. He certainly understands the importance of pacing within a narrative.

Lee may or may not eventually pen the Great South Korean Novel. In the meantime, he’s been able to keep his native audience – and, lately, an English-speaking readership – rapt, with his talents for smart, swift storytelling. Kudos to Pegasus for bringing him our way.