Korean-American (in Seoul, the South Korean capital, during 1965, though father’s family was originally from Pyongyang, now the North Korean capital) writer Chang-Rae Lee is less of a performer than the actress-turned-writer Anchee Min. He read more than she and talked less.
He said that he found writing in the first person — after three novels told in the third person — liberating. Without having to be concerned about perspective and what the narrator could know, he feels The Surrendered is less intellectualized than his earlier novels, more embodied.
I complained that in The Surrendered, the relatives to whom the survivor, June Han, is moving in the first chapter are never mentioned again once she is led, more than half-starved to an orphanage en route. Lee dismissed my concern, suggesting that I assume they were dead. I continue to think that not accounting for the abandonment of trying to reach a family in the safety of south — the southeasternmost tip of the Korean peninsula — needs some accounting for, even though I accepted the jump to the 1980s and New York didn’t. There is some mention of how it happened in the text.
There’s nothing about how Sylvie Tanner got out of Manchkuo, but I could accept that ellipsis better than the lifechance-altering abandonment of the attempt to get further south to her relatives on which pretty much the remainder of the novel (minus the sections set earlier in Manchuria being increasingly brutally administered by the Japanese) depends.
The Surrendered is at once a big book (480 pages) encompassing three generations of characters on the same number of continents, and sketchy. There are enthralling, often horrifying set pieces, but the middle of the story of the two main characters who survive the frozen hell of the Korean war is barely sketched.
The novel opens with a harrowing account of an eleven-year-old Korean girl, June Han, trying to protect her younger brother and sister in a desperate flight south from the communists. Her teacher father was rounded up as a traitor and her older brother was drafted and either killed or captured. Her older sister is taken away for sexual servitude, but blown up with her mother on the road. Which leaves June clinging to the top of a boxcar on a south-moving train.
The horrors are by no means over for her, and she is nearly dead from starvation when an America GI from upstate New York (Ilion), persuades her to follow him to an orphanage. Hector Brennan has had traumatic experiences I the war himself, including an enemy soldier who is tortured by another member of Hector’s squad and ends up begging to be put out of his misery. After that Hector worked with black GIs on tending to corpses. Better stinking remains than seeing or inflicting more killings, Hector decided. And he was already suffering survivor guilt and sexual guilt from the death of his alcoholic father before the war.
At the orphanage to which he led June, he becomes an indispensable handyman, and also the lover of Sylvie, the opium-addicted wife of a Presbyterian missionary who runs the orphanage and is frequently away setting up other ones. The children love Sylvie, June most of all and forges a special relationship with her.
Sylvie Tanner was the child of missionaries in Manchuria at the time the Japanese annexed it. Although that is not where she became addicted to opium, she witnessed the rape of her mother, the torture of her young Chinese mentor, Benjamin Li, and more before escaping (how she did is another lacuna in the novel).
There are more disasters and bases for survivor guilt for both June and Hector at the orphanage. 30years on, June has closed her successful Manhattan antique business, sold her co-op apartment (or vacated it if she was renting it) and hired a private detective to find Hector and to find the son she had by him (seemingly not with him, though it seems she got to the USA as his wife) who went off to Europe after graduating from high school and never came back. Nicholas seems to have used what he learned about antiques form his mother’s business, working and stealing from a succession of European antique shops.
It may seem like I have told a lot of the plot, but I have only laid out the beginnings of the layers of stories of suffering and anguish of June, Hector, and Sylvie and of the very complicated relationships at the Korean orphanage, the most extended — though interrupted — story in the center of the web of anguished failures to save others in the novel.
As if there weren’t enough horror from the wreckage of Korea in the 1950s, Lee includes three accidental deaths and two by cancer and a charred copy of J. H. Dun ant’s 1862 A Memory of Soldering, the site of an 1859 battle that was fought in what is now northern Italy (between Verona and Milan) and was the last major battle in world history where all the involved armies were under the personal command of their monarchs (Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II against the Hapsburg Franz Joseph I) involving more than 200, 000 men and 37,000 casualties, and leading to the founding in 1863 of both the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions on warfare. The Red Cross link is why Sylvie’s mother gave it to her. (Both Sylvie and Hector witness Violations of the Geneva Convention.) I don’t think that Lee needed to pile on casualties from the Second Italian War of Independence, though the chain of ownership of the book spans four generations.
Combat is in the distance in the parts of the novel set in Manchuria and Korea and far in the past for the battle of Solferino, the site at which the book ends. The Surrendered is not a war novel, Lee insists. Oddly, he thinks that The Surrendered is more about individual, less about fitting in than his earlier three novels. It seems to me that, as in Pearl of China, there are American missionaries trying to cope with Japanese conquest in The Surrendered, and also much about how June and her ex-husband, the Irish drunkard Hector Brennan (father of the child she wants to see again before she dies, have fit into American society (she more successfully than he, though he is native to it). Trying to put together life in North America after cruelties and outright atrocities in Asia seems to me as central to The Surrendered as to A Gesture Life.
I didn’t have a chance to ask how A Memory of Solferino survived its second conflagration, not wanting to sound too much like someone who is unable to distinguish fact from fiction and assuming that answers to questions not answered in the work exist.
A woman, who had known Lee at Yale, but had not seen him in recent years, asked him a question about feeling responsibility to his community. The question was rather telegraphese. The answer was that he could not write a whole novel driven by anyone’s notions of any extra-literary “ought to.” Readers would lose interest, but have no chance to do so, because the writer would lose interest.
He said that he does not know where his fiction is going, that he keeps asking questions about the characters, and if he did not, if he had everything worked out before writing, he’d lose interest.
Lee said that he aspires to write a novel less than 200 printed pages, but that his novels don’t fit in that slot, so they take five (plus-or-minus one) years to write. The one he is currently writing is about a Chinese emigrant to the US. I don’t recall his saying that it’s being narrated in the third person, so perhaps should not assume/extrapolate that it is.
I can’t imagine anyone doubting that Lee cares about the quality of his prose. Indeed, he joked that some reviewers think he is too concerned with it. But it’s not “art for art’s sake,” but very much involved in exploring damaged characters. The ones here are “collateral damage” of war: a phenomenon not of merely historical interest by any means (alas!).
Though a horror in the first part of the book derives from the experiences of a paternal uncle, Lee was born long after the shooting war ended (there has never been a peace treaty). Also, he came to the US when he was three. (Min was 27 when Joan Chen helped her to come to the US.)
The opening is so painful to read about that I put it down twice. After surviving that, I devoured the remaining 450+ pages in two days. That qualifies it as a “page-turner.” There were surprises and there are still some things I find mysterious, including how A Memory of Solferino survived its second conflagration. Light reading, The Surrendered definitely is not, but compelling reading, it is.
©2010, Stephen O. Murray