This morning on the train to work I finished reading The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee. It is a major achievement for this already well established author. I read and liked all three of his previous novels but this one ascends to a whole other level. Lee's prose is dazzling. Sentence after sentence, page after page, his writing leaps and lurches and leads the reader in all sorts of unexpected directions. With this novel even more than his earlier ones, which were all very good, Lee establishes himself as a master of the language. It's not mere pyrotechnics. It's words wielded in service of a bleak, beautiful, wrenching story, words as transport toward terrible wonderful terrain, literal and emotional.
Yet I can't quite regard it as a masterpiece, the kind of monumental accomplishment that will last and be read for ages to come, and that's because it is in my opinion not quite complete.
For this is a novel about, among other things, the human wreckage wrought by war, and as I've noted before, in my opinion "war is hell," even if illustrated with exquisitely brutal precision as in this novel, is no longer an adequate proposition for any work of fiction that aspires to make a profound or lasting contribution to literary culture. On the other hand, the particular war addressed in The Surrendered is one that has mostly faded into literary and historical obscurity, the 1950-1953 Korean War in which several million Koreans died. Spotlighting that particularly ignoble, especially murderous adventure of U.S. imperialism can only be a good thing. In a way, then, perhaps this novel rises above a generic treatment of the horrors of war simply by virtue of its setting, centered as it is in that one specific war about which U.S. readers know practically nothing.
However, the fact is that the only thing any reader will learn about the U.S. invasion of and war against the people of Korea is that the Korean people (and soldiers of both sides) suffered mightily. Now, that matters a great deal, and has been driven home in this country hardly at all, both because of a racist disregard for the victims and because of the U.S.-imperialist-engendered blanket unknowing about what happened and to whom. So making that record is vitally important. However, Lee's take on that war and the damage it did does not identify which side is responsible for the damage, who caused the whole conflagration and therefore all those deaths; thus, unfortunately, his portrayal doesn't distinguish itself by delineating the larger truths about this specific war. I don't suppose there's any harm to fine writers returning to the basic reality that wars destroy the innocents and the hapless conscripts, but I can't see that it offers much either.
Nor is there any reference, in the chapters that take place in the present-day, to the fact that the U.S. military occupation of Korea continues to this day. Worst of all, in several places in the story, Lee refers to the "North Korean invasion of South Korea" or some variation on that formulation. That's the U.S. version of history, of course, and utterly false. The truth is that after the victory of the Chinese Revolution, a socialist revolution led by Kim Il Sung and supported by the majority of Korean workers and peasants was sweeping the nation of Korea and on the verge of victory. To block that possibility, U.S. imperialism and its allies contrived to force a partition of Korea, just as they later would in Vietnam, dividing it into these nominal entities of "North Korea" and "South Korea" and then invading and occupying the southern part of the country and waging war in alliance with the "South Korean" puppet government's troops against "North Korea," that is, the popular revolutionary forces backed by People's China. This, imperialism's bloody counterrevolution punctuated by scores of atrocities such as the U.S. soldiers' massacre of hundreds of adult and child civilians at No Gun Ri, was the scourge of Korea. This is what ravaged the characters so finely wrought in Lee's novel.
The question is whether he could have taken any of this into account. Could he have found a way to use some other formulation than "North Korean invasion," hemmed in as he necessarily is by any perception coming via the filter of his characters and what they see or know or believe? Could he have even gone beyond that and provided even a little of the true context of the war and would that have enriched and deepened the story he sought to tell? I think the answer to all these questions is yes.
Given the ignorance about Korea and the Korean War that prevails in this country, and given that virtually 100 percent of what the U.S. government and news media purvey about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a lie, right up to and including the recent attempts to fake up DPRK culpability for a south Korean ship sinking which the south Korean government officially acknowledged the DPRK had nothing to do with until pressured to change their story by the U.S. State Department, it's disappointing that we've now had two recent novels by major writers that are set partly in the Korean War and partly afterward with characters damaged by it, and that neither steps in any way beyond the proscribed boundaries of the official story of that war.
Of course, these are my criteria for literary value, and they don't jibe with those to which the literary establishment subscribes. Also, obviously, I can't demand that Mr. Lee, a Korean-American, share my ideas about the war in the country of his birth, and it seems a pretty sure bet he doesn't. The Surrendered meets every standard criterion for what literary fiction ought to be: it has beauty, depth, lyricism, sublime artistry. This is a very fine book. I might even end up listing it as one my best reads of 2010 when I think about that at the end of the year. Yet I'm stuck yearning for what more it might have been, what further depth it might have reached had its vision been broader. This book might have achieved greatness.