Words of War

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David Burnett

Poet of suffering Lee's writing often achieves a stately beauty

The canvas on which Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee paints his magisterial fourth novel, The Surrendered, is massive: it spans three continents, three wars and nearly 150 years (if you take into account the historical background to its concluding episode). The unforgettable opening scene, on a war-ravaged Korean countryside in 1950, with disparate straggles of refugees escaping to the south, introduces us to one of the protagonists, 11-year-old June Han, who loses her last remaining family members, a brother and a sister, both 7, in a train accident as the chapter unfolds.

Much of this unrelentingly bleak novel is filled with epic set pieces such as these. Earlier on in the chapter, June watches her mother and sister get blown up by bombs; another character, the daughter of American missionaries, witnesses the killing of her parents in Manchuria in 1934; a Korean orphanage burns down; and, in perhaps some of the most harrowing pages I've ever read, a Korean boy is tortured by an American soldier who blows a horn repeatedly into the boy's ear, splitting his eardrum. About suffering, both individual and collective, Lee is never less than eloquent, truthful and unsparing.

Thirty-six years after that opening, June, now afflicted by terminal cancer, packs up her successful antiques business in New York and sets out for Italy to track down her son Nicholas, who has disappeared from her life and subsists, it is intimated, on petty thieving. In this mission she enlists the help of Hector Brennan, a hard-drinking, brooding janitor in a Korean-run mall in New Jersey.

Hector, it emerges, fought in the war in Korea in 1951 — military service that, for him, in some way expiated the guilt he felt over his father's accidental drowning — and stayed on in the country afterward. He met June, a teenager then, at the New Hope orphanage, where a kind Korean pastor gave him work as the institution's handyman. He eventually took June to the U.S. and married her in order to give her an American passport. Before that departure from Korea, a vital story, involving Sylvie Tanner, an American missionary's wife and a heroin addict, who attracts both Hector and June in intense and destructive ways, has to be told. It's difficult to say more about it without spoiling the plot, but by the time Hector and June leave for America, their lives are bound by several accretions of devastation and tragedy.

The tentacles of that damaged past reach out again to embrace June and Hector. It is characteristic of a novel about pitting the human spirit against vast historical forces — especially against the all-consuming terror of war — that a critical chapter should be set on the site of the 1859 Battle of Solferino. That clash (between a Franco-Sardinian alliance and the Austrian army of Emperor Franz Joseph I) was so ferocious it led to the drawing up of the Geneva Conventions.

Sharing, at times, the thematic concerns of the very best of Hemingway, The Surrendered is a brilliantly written meditation on the residue of the individual and the human left behind in the crucible of conflict. Its prose often rises, even in its goriest passages, to the level of plangent poetry. Hector, Lee writes, would "rather deal with the horror of a rotting body visibly shifting and radiating a sickening warmth from its hold of maggots" instead of a living body warmed by blood or "that clean red proxy of life."

What occasionally detracts from this magnificent achievement is Hector's overdone fatalism. He is one of life's "surrendered" persons, biding his time with a resignation bordering on inertia. Weak, too, is the predictable triangle between June, Sylvie and Hector. And yet The Surrendered remains a moving novel, especially in its final scene, in which June hands Hector a kind of redemption that completes, with poetic obliquity, the ruptured arc of their pasts.