An interview with Jung-myung Lee

12 February 2013

By Pan Macmillan

Jung-myung Lee, can you tell us what your novel The Investigation is about?

The Investigation is a story about censors who burned the poetry of a prisoner. It begins with the murder case of a prison guard in Fukuoka Prison, 1944. A Japanese prison guard was found hanged in the main corridor of the prison. A young guard starts to investigate the murder case and serving a secret cause of writing. He uncovers the conspiracy of Japanese imperialists.

What inspired the friendship between the Japanese guard and the Korean prisoner?

It was 1989; I was on a trip on Kyoto, the second biggest city in Japan. I met a Japanese friend and he became my guide. We were going to his college and to look around the campus, and I found a marked stone. I read what was printed on it and I realized it was the memorial stone of the Korean poet. I realized that he had spent his last student period at that college. We went to the campus library and found two poetry collections, one each in Korean and Japanese. We read the collection in each language. After that we went out of the library and my Japanese friend said that he should have known about him. After I graduated university I worked as a journalist. I have long collected reports and information about the young poet, and I decided to write after 20 years. The inspiration came 25 years ago.

History seems very important to you, why is this?

I am always amazed by the history from between the lines of the record, in other words the unprinted record. I always focus on the unrecorded history. When I read a record, a historical record, I imagine the real side of the history. I think there are three perspectives of history. One is the historiographical, the facts; it focuses on when and where. The second one is the history of the records; it includes the writers, memoirs, and a lot of different things. The third one is a history of interpretation; it depends on the perspective of the historian and the historic research. It consists of the whole history. But I’d like to add one more perspective to that list: the history of imagination. I love to imagine a blank of the untold history. Of course it is fiction, not a fact or historical truth. But I believe that the fiction appears more sincere than the historic truth. I dream of fiction which highlights the historical truths, and highlights the whole history; the fiction that shows the whole historical truth, not a fragment of histories. And I dream of fiction which the people may want to believe is the fact. That is my opinion.

The act of reading and the act of writing are both very important to your characters. How important do you believe it is for people to read and write?

I think reading and writing, as a sentence, or a written work, in other words a book, I think a book can change people, humans, from their hearts. Sugiyama, who dies in this story, shows that, shows how books or reading can change the human being. He was an ignorant and violent prison guard who was slowly but clearly moved by writing. The pure Yun poet makes him change through the writings of Shakespeare and Tolstoy. I think books and writings and music can make the world better. Without them we can only exist in one singular minute.

Every year the London Book Fair focuses on a particular country. This year, 2013, that country was Korea. Why do you think so many English-speaking people are becoming interested in Korean literature?

We have made great economic progress since independence in 1945. We suffered from colonization and the Korean War, but we started again from the ground of the first world. After that we made great progress, but the Western people are aware of our economic progress, our IT, and our life. But the culture of our country is not well known, and they don’t know about our culture. Some of them don’t know about our culture. So the Korean government tried to show it, to let foreigners know about our culture. And a lot of artists in pop songs, or games, and sports made progress in Western countries. So more and more foreigners became aware of Korean culture and they needed more information about our culture. I think that literature or the novel is the best way to know about the heart of a certain culture. So it is timely for the Korean culture to join the market, to be at the book fair.