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Chang-rae Lee, the bestselling and award-winning author of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft returns with his most ambitious novel yet-a spellbinding story of how love and war echo through an entire lifetime.
June Han was orphaned as a girl by the Korean War. Hector Brennan was a young GI who fled the petty tragedies of his small town to serve his country. When the war ended, their lives collided at a Korean orphanage, where they vied for the attention of Sylvie Tanner, a beautiful yet deeply damaged missionary.
As Lee masterfully unfurls the stunning story of June, Hector, and Sylvie, he weaves a profound meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the power of love, and the possibilities for mercy, salvation, and surrendering oneself to another.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:July 29, 1965
Place of Birth:Seoul, Korea
Education:B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993
Read an Excerpt
THE JOURNEY WAS NEARLY OVER.
The night was unusually chilly, the wind sharpened by the speed of the train as it rolled southward through the darkened valley. The cotton blanket June had stolen was large enough to spread as a tarp and at the same time wrap around her younger brother and sister and herself, but it was threadbare and for brief stretches the train would accelerate and the wind would cut right through to them. It had not been a problem the night before but now they were riding on top of the boxcar, as there was no more room within any of them, even as the train was more than a dozen cars long. A massive phalanx of refugees had met the train at the last station, and in the time it took her siblings to relieve themselves by the side of the tracks they had lost their place and had had to climb the rusted ladder between the cars, June running alongside for fifty meters until her brother was high enough on the rungs so she herself could jump up and on.
There was a score or so of people atop every car, groupings of families and neighbors, mostly women and the old and the young, and then a cluster or two like theirs, children traveling by themselves. June was eleven; Hee-Soo and Ji-Young had just turned seven. They were fraternal twins, though looked as much alike as a sister and brother could, only the cut of their hair distinguishing them. June knew they could have waited in the hope of another train with room inside but it hadn’t been cold when they stopped just before dusk and she decided they ought to keep moving while they had the chance. To keep moving was always safer than lingering in one place, and there was nothing back at the depot to eat, anyway. There were a few scruffy soldiers drinking and playing cards by the depot shack, though their presence could only mean trouble, even for a girl her age. She was tall besides and she was wary of soldiers and any stray men. They were some two hundred kilometers south of Seoul, past Chongju, and June was now thinking that they would make their way down to Pusan, where her uncle’s family lived, though she didn’t know whether they were still there, or even alive.
The train sped up on a slight decline and June curled her arm around her siblings, spooning them tightly. They lay as low as they could between the ridges of the steel roof of the boxcar. They were on the front end of the car and as such they were fully buffeted by the rushing wind. They were fortunate to have a blanket; many others on top of the cars did not. It was too early to sleep but it was cold and it was better for the twins not to be active, especially given that the two had shared only a few crackers early in the day. June herself had eaten nothing. They had eaten well the day before, as June had found, below a footbridge, a GI’s abandoned pack of canned rations, a small bar of chocolate, and a sleeve of crackers. Her brother and sister were so hungry that they’d bolted down the chocolate first as June was smashing the cans open against a rock. She’d cut her finger and gotten some blood on the food but they ate it without hesitation, two tins of stewed beef and one of sardines in tomato sauce, afterward each taking a turn to lick the insides, carefully, with the deftness of cats. She made them save the crackers. They’d been by themselves on the road since their mother and older sister were killed two weeks before, at first traveling with some people from their town but then blending in with the endless stream of other refugees moving southward along the pushed-up roads and embankments of the river valleys. At another time it might have been a pretty journey, the hills just turning the colors of pumpkin and hay and pomegranate and the skies depthless and clear, but now everywhere one looked most of the trees had been felled for fuel and there was only a hazy, oppressive brightness refracted from the shorn hillsides. There were formerly cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages, and then the terraces of rice paddies, but all had been stripped and then abandoned during these first months of the war. The farmers’ houses, if they hadn’t been bombed to rubble, were alternately occupied by both sides in retreat and advance, and then by passing refugees like themselves. It didn’t matter that sometimes the owners were present and still living there.
A few days earlier June and her siblings had stayed a night in a house no bigger than twenty square meters with nearly thirty others, including the old farmer and his wife, who slept in the corner next to a locked chest of their things. It was raining heavily that day, and when someone spotted what looked like a house at the foot of a hill a few people began to run for it, and then others, and soon enough scores. But it was far in from the road and the three of them were fast and reached the house in the first wave. The farmer had attempted to camouflage it with a makeshift cover of netting and reeds and then appeared out front holding a pitchfork, but he pointed the tines downward when he saw it was no use. The force of numbers held for even the weak and the ragged. The crowd pushed in until the small house was full, the others having to hike back to the road and continue their sodden march.
All the farmer and his wife could do was to make certain that they themselves had a space for the night. They were shrewd to share some of their food in the hope that all of it wouldn’t simply be taken. Without any prompting, his wife quickly made a large pot of barley porridge and everyone got a half-cup; the three of them had one tin mug between them and June begged the farmer’s wife to fill it to the brim, which she did. They took turns taking swallows while sitting jammed in among the rest of the horde, everyone sitting cross-legged and knee to-knee. Only the smallest children could curl up or recline. Everyone was soaked from the rain, and the smell of so many wet, long-unwashed bodies in the enclosed space was fierce, the air of the single room quickly stifling and sour with an overwhelming humidity, and soon someone asked June to open the window, which was right above them. After eating, she took out a tortoiseshell comb of her mother’s and ran it through her siblings’ hair; she had noticed before the rain began in the morning how whitish their heads appeared and so combed through to remove the sheets of clinging lice. She flicked them out the window. It was futile work, of course, for she had no special soap to kill the eggs and they would simply multiply, besides the fact that the other people there were equally infested, but now that her mother and older sister were gone it was she who had to keep the little ones safe, keep them as sound as she could, and so whenever she had a chance June wiped their faces, or rubbed their teeth and gums with mint leaves, fed them whatever she could scrounge or barter for, offering them as much as she could without growing too weak herself.
She was always a responsible, filial daughter and, as she was closest in age to the twins, had looked after them for as long as she could remember. It happened that her older brother and sister were also twins and their family had always seemed to comprise her parents and just three children, instead of five, June ever slightly removed from their naturally unitary play. It was a system of orbit that had seemed unlucky to her at first but in fact suited her burgeoning character, something her gentle, thoughtful father recognized. He was a respected schoolteacher in their town, and he often told her that there was great strength in her singularity, that she ought to revel in it, an idea that she would see as bitterly ironic years later, when he was falsely denounced as a Communist in the first disastrous, terrifying days of the war.
She combed her own short hair and saw that hers was rife with lice, too, and her sister Hee-Soo offered to do it for her, and she let her. A few of the men lit cigarettes and others began talking. The conversations centered at the start on the rumored movements of the forces (the Americans were advancing quickly north now, the North Koreans reportedly retreating pell-mell), on which were the best refugee camps, on lost family members, but then soon enough turned to subjects like the rain, the recent trend of weather, if the pears and persimmons would be ready by now (if there was any remaining fruit on the trees, if there were any trees at all), the best remedies for certain body aches, all the blithe, everyday talk that might keep at bay for a moment the staggering reality of the dismantled world outside.
But then a man stood up and began berating everyone for their trivial concerns. He was in his early thirties, which was unusual because any other man his age would have been conscripted instantly into military service. He spoke with emotion and passion, and from his accent and verbiage one could tell he was well educated. Didn’t they care that atrocities were occurring daily, in every village and town in the river valley? Didn’t they care that they were being committed not just by soldiers from both sides but by their own people? He talked about the rampant lawlessness that had swept the land, the raping and maiming and summary executions. A white-haired man near June sharply replied that his accusations were unfair, for what could powerless people like themselves ever do? It was difficult enough just to get by, to simply survive.
“War brought a tide of blood,” the older man went on. “And it has swallowed everyone.”
“Yes, it has,” the man said. He had turned squarely to address the other man and June saw that one of his eyelids was shut and half sunken in the socket, the other eye wide open but clouded gray and aimed off-kilter.
“But it doesn’t mean we should so quickly give up our humanity. That we should be so indifferent. Yesterday on the road there was an old woman lying on her side. I can hardly see but it was obvious that she was suffering greatly. Some of you here must have passed by her, yes?” He seemed to pick out June but she couldn’t be sure. She had indeed seen the old woman. She was a wretched sight. She had soiled herself front and back and was wheezing heavily with desperate effort, as if a crab apple were lodged at the back of her mouth. It was difficult to know what was wrong with her but she had a terrible color. There was no family beside her, nor any possessions, or even a bag, only what she was wearing, as if she had been magically dropped there onto the road from some place far away. She was barefoot as well, her soles very pale and soft-looking, as though someone had just pulled off her shoes. Ji-Young was curious and slowed as they approached but they had nothing, nothing at all, to give her, and June had tugged her siblings’ hands and they had quickly walked on.
“All the woman asked for when my mother and I stopped was to have a drink. A sip of water. That’s all. She knew she was dying, and what a horror it must have been for her, to see that no one would even pause so she could have something so meager. Yet hundreds must have passed, before we came to her.”
“We have Mother Mary and Jesus here,” someone mumbled from the other end of the room. There were scattered snorts of laughter. The man crooked his head, his one eye widening, craning about.
“I am talking about decency. About something as basic as that. We could offer her only the smallest comfort. She died shortly thereafter but, my God, she was alone and afraid and in misery. Who in this room would ever wish anyone an end like that?”
“So did you resurrect her?”
More laughter, this time full-throated and resonant. The man was about to respond but he went silent, his mother pulling hard on his arm to make him sit down, which he did. His eye was half closed now and his head and neck slightly shuddered, as though he were having the mildest seizure. The small talk resumed and soon enough it was as if the man had never stood up and said anything. The moment had already passed and disappeared. They were all chronically weary and hungry and whenever off their feet and safely sheltered the time paradoxically seemed to accelerate, the periods of rest never long enough, never satisfying, their bodies ready for complete repose but their thoughts restlessly spinning out memories they did not wish to see. Hee-Soo and Ji-Young lay nested together against her lap, the weight of them almost unbearable on her crossed legs. But the dirt floor was damp and chilly and she was afraid they might get sick, and those sick on the road, she knew, only grew more ill and weak and then often enough fell out of sight. She gently patted them on the back in a slow rhythm, lowing cha-jahng, chajahng, as her mother would do when they had a nightmare or couldn’t sleep. The man and his mother sat leaning back-to-back, like many of the others trying to invite sleep, and June wondered whether he’d been in this condition his whole life or if he’d been blinded more recently, since the start of the war.
The rest of the night passed without incident. Despite the torture of having to sleep sitting up, people were accustomed to it, and it was mostly quiet. There were groans, and the anxious, nonsense mutterings of dreams, and then an outcry that would wake them all for a moment before they returned to their difficult slumbers. The half-blind man in fact cried out in the middle of the night, and for a long while afterward June couldn’t sleep, her mind bracing for another shout or cry. It was the racked voice that disturbed her most. Someone’s miserable song. Now, after all that had happened, she thought she could suffer seeing most anything, whatever cruelty or disaster, but the notes of a human plaint would make her wish she could exist without a heart.
She sensed movement in the dim predawn light. In the near corner an older middle-aged man was huffing and grimacing; he was one of those who had taunted the blind fellow. Everyone else was still asleep. She had heard his breath filtering fast through his teeth. He looked terribly pained and she was ready for him to wail for help when he closed his eyes and exhaled with a final rasp of his throat. His shoulders sagged. He was surely about to keel over, but instead he pushed aside the coat that covered his lap and a woman’s head rose up, her expression wan, completely blank. She was around June’s mother’s age and still quite pretty, despite the sallow, drawn flesh of her face. Without looking at her, the man gave her a few strips of dried fish and then almost immediately dozed off. The woman slipped the shreds into her shirt and turned away. She absently caressed the sleeping children beside her, two young boys and a girl, and it was as if nothing had occurred until she glanced up and met June’s gaze. June tried to look away. The woman stopped patting them, momentarily trapped in her shame, but then her eyes narrowed, hardening their focus, and they seemed to curse June through the darkness, as if to foretell of an evernearing future, an imminent fate.
With the new light of the day the others were arising, the room echoing with coughs and moans, and the several infants among them were already fretting, their bellies keen for milk. Hee-Soo and Ji-Young were awake now and they were softly whining, too, as they did every morning when they knew there would be nothing on hand to eat. If she had her own milk (if she even had a woman’s breasts) she would have surely tried to feed them, but she shushed them, not for the sake of those still sleeping but to keep their thoughts from dwelling on the hunger. Her mother had kept telling them to think only of what lay over the next hill, in the next valley, the coming turn in the road, and though it never quelled a grain of the ache, her command seemed to quicken their pace ever so slightly, make them cover that much more ground on their southward journey to Pusan. From the beginning of their wartime life, their mother was shepherding them constantly forward, no matter the topography, no matter the weather. It was brutally torrid those first few weeks, the July sky a stifling blanket of haze; then the clouds would rend and the road would become a stalled river of mud. The flies and mosquitoes sang furiously in their ears. They’d trudge ahead anyway with their minds in arrest, in the suspension of any future save the one in which they persisted, kept on. Their movement was more inertia than propulsion. A necessary tendency. And yet one did whatever one could. One morning, when her mother was alive, June saw her mother emerge from the cab of an ROK army truck and then turn and accept several pouches of food from the driver. They were dried red beans. As she walked back, June pretended to be asleep, only rising with her siblings when her mother began to cook the beans. Nobody asked where they had come from. They ate them for breakfast, had bolted them down in fact, June filling her gullet so fast she’d actually choked for a few seconds, her eyes tearing as her mother gently rapped her on the back, saying, “Slow down, dear. There’s plenty now.”
The old farmer stood up with his wife by his side and said he wished he could offer something for breakfast but there was hardly anything left and so asked if they would kindly move on, now that it wasn’t raining. He also said he had heard of a newly opened UN refugee camp some twenty kilometers south. No one much believed him about the camp or his store of food, but he’d surely suffered them and people began to gather their things and leave. While her siblings yawned and rubbed the sleep from their eyes, June brushed the smudges of dirt from their clothes. It was of course futile, as they could never do any wash and their clothing and skin were long infused by the brackish color of the valley soils, but she did so anyway because it was what her mother would do if she were still alive. It was how June formulated every decision. Whether to go on and whether to rest. Where to sleep at night. Whom to approach and whom to flee. But most of all it was how she snuffed her own animal impulses, her desire to keep wholly for herself the meager cache of whatever they were lucky to find. It was how she blunted herself from ever seeing her siblings as burdens, or worse, as though they were killing her, if slowly, two blind leeches attached to her heels and drawing the life out of her. It was how she had not yet allowed herself to harden against them. To hate them. For of course she loved them, and just as her mother would she’d give up all to protect them, but what in fact was left of her to give? She felt hollowed with hunger and weariness, only the fear invigorating her blood. She was beginning to realize, too, that they could not go on in this way for much longer, that something would have to change, and soon. They were carefully listening for frogs and crickets at night, in the hope of catching some to eat. They dug for roots and grubs during the day. They begged and stole whatever they could, but three months of grinding war had left little of value. And she knew she was too young and powerless to keep them sound. She could take care of herself but someone else would have to aid them. Otherwise they would perish, or in a moment of weakness she might let them perish, as she would sometimes imagine, letting go of their hands as they waded across some fast-moving river, the sound of the rushing water only partly masking their cries.
The farmer again asked the others still in the house to leave. But some had not even begun preparing to clear out, either remaining on their haunches or lying on the floor and smoking cigarettes. The farmer began complaining, saying he’d been patient and enough was enough. But he was being ignored, those moving on continuing to do so, the others remaining indolently at rest. The blind man and his mother had tightened their bundle and he hefted it onto his back, tying a canvas strap around his chest to secure it. They were shuffling out ahead of June and she saw that they were among the few who thanked the farmer and his wife as they exited. The wife was kind-eyed and spoke softly, and when they reached her, June took her hand and asked if they could remain with them for a while, if for just a few days, explaining as quickly as she could what had happened to their family, that they were now alone in the world. They’d sleep in the outhouse, if they had to. The farmer overheard her as he was exhorting some of the others to leave and he scolded his wife for even listening.
“The whole country is orphaned!” he said. “Get on, now, children, before the day gets too late. You’ll be better off for it.”
But instead of leaving, June sat down right in front of him, tugging her siblings to sit beside her. He told them to get up.
“Please, Grandmother, let us stay,” June said to his wife, addressing her as if she were of their blood. “Don’t make us go.”
The farmer said harshly, “Did you not hear me, you insolent children!”
“Please, Grandmother!” she cried, her siblings now chiming in, too.
The farmer became enraged and grabbed her brother roughly by the arm, yanking him up like a doll. Ji-Young shrieked in pain and the farmer’s wife asked her husband to stop. But he then grabbed June the same way and tried to pull her up to her feet. She resisted and he clasped her shirt and would have almost pulled it off, had she not leaned in and bitten him hard on his bony, darkly tanned forearm. The farmer shouted an obscenity and flung her wildly behind him, sending her crashing against a neat stack of kindling near the step-down to the tiny kitchen. June lay on the floor, her back and side afire with pain. For a moment all in the house seemed suspended, everyone staring at her, before she realized that it was not her they were looking at; part of the stack had fallen away, exposing the lid of a large earthenware barrel hidden behind the kindling. The farmer’s wife immediately knelt and tried to gather the loose branches to place them again before the barrel.
Someone barked, “Hey, old-timer, why didn’t you show us that last night?”
“Yeah, let’s see what’s in the jar.”
Indeed, when his wife had prepared the pot of porridge, he’d made a special point of showing the inside of a similar vessel, which was practically empty save a cup for scooping.
“It’s none of your business!” the farmer said. “None at all. Look here, I’ve been patient with all of you! We have nothing to give anymore. Now let us have our home again!”
One of the middle-aged men who’d been smoking now stood before the farmer. His cheeks were rough, his eyes lightless and deeply set. He was a head taller than the farmer and much broader, though still thin like everyone else, and he spoke without any hint of jest in his voice: “Just show us what’s inside.”
“I won’t!” the farmer said.
The man brushed past him. But before he’d taken a second step the farmer pulled a wooden baton from under his shirt and hit him in the back of the head. The man fell straight down, as if dropped from a great height. He landed headfirst, with an ugly, hollow sound. June scooted away as some men attended to him; his face was pinched against the hard floor, dark, thick blood streaming from his nose. The farmer stood dazed as they tried to revive him, but it was no use.
“He’s killed him,” one of them said.
“With his back turned, no less!”
The farmer was already retreating against the wall when they rushed him. He held back the first man with his baton but the others quickly overwhelmed him, punching and kicking him as he crumpled to the floor. His wife was screaming for them to stop. But they beat him until he was curled up in a ball, covering his head, crying out like a pitiful boy in a schoolyard, his mouth webbed with bloodied strings of spit.
It was then that the house was ransacked. Everyone took part. Even many of those who’d begun hiking back to the main road, including the blind man and his mother, returned to force their way back inside. There was no use in doing anything else. It took perhaps all of a few minutes, for how little of value there was. First the hidden earthenware barrel was dumped, which was only half full of dried corn, then the larder of dry goods, and then the kitchen was stripped of pots and utensils and of anything else someone was willing to carry away. June and her siblings scooped up as much of the corn as they could; Ji-Young even used his mouth, jamming it with kernels when his shallow pockets were filled. (Later on he spit them up into June’s hand and she rinsed them in the next stream they crossed.) Somebody broke off the lock on the clothes chest and women were rifling through it, June lucky to grab a blanket that fell between two women as they struggled over a silk blouse. The blanket was of light weight but large, and June knew it would be useful. The rest was just old people’s clothes, worn and stained. In the end the house was in shambles, the floor a mess of pottery shards and torn fabric, smashed bits of furniture, every last object picked through and taken apart, and if not stolen, then instantly rendered worthless, and as the three of them left, June ordered her siblings to look away from the farmer’s wife, who was still kneeling over her half-conscious husband, her face pure madness, screaming as if she were slowly being murdered.
THE TRAIN SLOWED DOWN and halted completely for a moment, then started again, the change in the rhythm waking Hee-Soo from her dreams. June was listening to her and wondering whether to wake her out of them, as she was growing more and more upset. She was calling their father as if he were inside his study but had somehow gotten locked in and was greatly distressed.
“Please hold on, Father,” she was half crying. “Please just a little longer. Mother is still looking for the key.”
June wound the blanket tightly around them, retucking the tattered ends beneath their feet. The stars were just appearing, moment by moment gaining in brilliance as the sky darkened. In another time, in another life, she would have thought them pretty, might have stirred her siblings to gaze up at their array, but as it was she could only see them as impossibly distant and perfect. Forever uninterested. After the train lurched forward, Hee-Soo fell quiet, Ji-Young snoring lightly the whole time; he always slept well, despite the circumstances. June hoped she might fall asleep, too, for a few hours at least, so that she’d have some strength the next day. But it was futile. She was thoroughly exhausted and her limbs felt as frail and old to her as that farmer’s wife’s branch-thin arms; and yet her mind still raced at night like a fueled engine, simply running and running, until it ran so hard and long that it forgot all else but this sole reason for being.
Their father had been the first. The last time she saw him he was bleeding from the nose and mouth, from the eyes, kneeling on the ground with his hands tied behind his back, a South Korean army officer standing jauntily above him, pressing the nose of a pistol to his head. The rest of them, except for her older brother, were in the back of a large transport truck, being driven away with the families of the other men who were being rounded up. They weren’t told where they were going. It had all happened instantly, in the course of an afternoon, this a week after the war started; the rapid retreat of the South Korean forces was sweeping through the towns and a general panic abounded, everyone fearing what the Communists might do as the front rolled southward, people frantically loading up whatever they could and filling horse carts, wheelbarrows, cars if they had them. But as it happened the ROK forces wreaked as much misery as the northern soldiers, and perhaps more. That morning June’s family was packing when the local police captain and ROK army officer and two armed soldiers appeared in their inner courtyard and ordered that her father go to the station with them. At first he simply nodded, as if the sight of them were nothing unusual. When they grabbed him to take him away he suddenly erupted, demanding to know what they were doing, why they wanted him, but they wouldn’t tell him. When he resisted, a soldier rifle-butted him in the face, sending him to the ground. His nose was smashed. Her older brother, Ji-Hoon, who was fourteen, wildly threw himself at the soldier but he was easily thwarted and they toyed with him cruelly before corralling him into the back of a sedan, along with his half-conscious father. June witnessed this from the house, having just gathered the few clothes she would take with her, the rest of the family arrayed below in the small inner courtyard, and when her father was struck it did not seem an actual or even possible happening. It seemed to her that she was shouting and screaming along with her mother and older sister (the younger twins were sobbing), but a week afterward, in a quiet moment of rest on the road, her older sister asked her how she could have been so dispassionate and calm. “What is wrong with you?” she’d said, almost desperately, her tone suggesting that June’s non-reaction was more a confirmation of her character than any surprise.
June’s father and brother were driven away. The rest of the family was ordered to wait. Two hours later a truck pulled up and they had to climb into the open bed, where another fatherless family was riding. The truck picked up two other families and made its way to the public square of their town. In the square was her father, along with three other men. They were badly beaten up, bleeding and swollen about their faces. June’s brother was not among them. The police captain announced that these four men were advance spies for the North, which the men had apparently admitted to under questioning. Neither her father nor the others were allowed to deny the charges. A crowd of townspeople had gathered, including some village officials who stood nervously behind the police captain. Then her father and the others were pushed to their knees. The officer paused for a moment and then waved the driver of their truck to pull away. June never heard any shots. They were driven for an hour or so south of town and then told to get out and join the rest of a throng of refugees marching on the road. Unlike the others, they were carrying hardly more than what they were wearing, though her mother had wound a belt of cash around her waist in the last chaotic moments they were in their house. Her mother asked the driver if he knew where her son had been taken, and the driver told them that a truck full of new conscripts had been sent toward the front line. But his expression was odd and her mother pressed him and he finally said that he’d heard the truck had been ambushed and attacked, and that those not immediately killed had been taken prisoner. For the next weeks her mother asked every person she came across if they had encountered or heard of him, the only word coming from a woman from their town who said she heard rumors of young South Korean men who had been reconscripted by the Communists and taken north.
June still asked after her brother whenever she had the chance, though somehow she was certain that she would never see him again. Either he would be killed in the fighting or they would perish on the road. But even at the farmer’s house she spoke his name to those sitting immediately around them, perhaps more for the twins’ sake than anything else.
The twins were fast asleep. She was flagging, too, and hungry. Sometimes the pangs overwhelmed her at night, after her siblings were asleep, and only then did she allow herself to softly whimper and cry. By the morning her spirit had hardened again, her mind already scrambling, angling furiously as to how they would eat for the day.
They were constantly famished, the hunger risen in them like well water during the spring rains, accruing to them each day until the feeling, oddly enough, was like an unbearable plenitude, this pressing flood of hollowness that would not recede. In the beginning, in those first days on the march, when they still had some money, they might buy rice and dried cabbage from others, her mother making a simple soup or gruel in a small tin pot a former neighbor had kindly given them. Because they’d had no time to gather what they’d packed they had much less than most of the other refugees. At first they did not dwell on the circumstances, for they were surely only temporary, for everyone was quickly moving southward toward the rumored refugee camps set up well behind the front, where people said there was plenty of food, and tents. Once a column of American trucks had rolled by, the soldiers tossing oranges and candy to them, and they could believe they would be all right. But soon enough, within mere days, there was little anyone could sell them, or, if someone was willing, a cup of rice or some strips of dried squid would be so costly that their money was practically worthless. And so the five of them—her mother and older sister and the twins and herself—took to foraging and scavenging, leaving the road for a part of the day to gather whatever they could in the countryside, greens and roots, wild berries and seeds, and then always checking any abandoned or destroyed American armor or trucks, however dangerous that might be, for whatever had been left behind. The Americans seemed to have unlimited supplies and were generous and profligate with them. Of course everyone else knew the same and so it was pure luck to happen upon a vehicle before it was completely, instantly stripped.
One afternoon the twins made a thrilling find, spotting the tail rotor of a helicopter that had crashed behind a bombed-out farmhouse. It had been there for at least a week, to judge from the remains of the pilots scattered about the wreck, the birds and rodents and feral dogs having worked to leave them almost cleanly skeletal inside the torn uniforms. Broken beer bottles littered the floor of the cockpit. But in a crate behind the seats there was a hold of pristine riches: a half-dozen packets of beef jerky and a can of Spam. As with the tins June found, they couldn’t help but eat the canned meat right away; their mother refused it, professing not to like its smell as she cut the pinkish block into four thick slices with the edge of the can, though while she was gorging on the salty, slick meat June saw her mother take a taste of her fingertips, her eyes half shut, losing herself for a moment in another time and place.
The days on the road were like that. You could never anticipate what might happen next, the earth-shattering and the trivial interspersing with the cruelest irony. You could be saved by pure chance, or else ruined. That was the terror of it, what kept June awake at night and stole her breath through the day, though it was the terror that was also forming her into her destined shape, feeding the being of her vigilance until it had grown into the whole of her, pushing out everything else.
It happened soon after the twins found the helicopter. It was a beautiful, shimmering day, the sky majestically tufted with high clouds, the slightest cooling breeze filtering down from the hills. Because of the solid nourishment, they were feeling stronger, more lively, and they were covering good distances, the younger ones having less trouble keeping pace. And their mood was light, as light as could be, given the circumstances. An especially haggard-faced woman traveling in their column had even given Ji-Young a soccer ball, of all things; it had been the prized possession of her son, who’d succumbed to a terrible infection several weeks before. They’d traveled all the way from Pyongyang, most every meter on foot. The woman had two daughters with her and all of them were bearing heavy loads on their backs, and she’d held on to the ball but it was a burden as it was impossible to pack, and she was hoping to give it away to another young boy. It was somewhat deflated but almost new and June’s mother at first balked at accepting it, for the very reason of having to carry it, but Ji-Young was jumping up and down and she couldn’t bear to refuse him. Soon enough they would stop once or twice a day and they would play in whatever patch of field was around, often other children joining them for a kick or two before their families called them back, June’s mother and older sister, Hee-Sung, watching them from the embanked road. Everyone was exhausted and hungry, but it was joyous, for a moment at least, to simply watch the children play. That day they were playing with others when a column of trucks and light armor rolled through. It was the Communists, heading north; it was said the Americans were pushing them back now from the small foothold they’d desperately held around Pusan, and the North Koreans were in full retreat. Several hours later a troop of soldiers followed, numbering only in the dozens, scuttling through them in a labored, steady march. The soldiers’ condition was poor, some of them worse off, it seemed, than their own civilian ranks, a good number of them wounded, at least every fourth or fifth man unarmed. Still, they paused there long enough to demand food from the refugees, having everyone open their packs, and Hee-Sung, who was carrying the beef jerky, decided on her own to slip down off the road and join the soccer game, to safeguard the food. The packets of dried meat had been tightly strapped to her chest with a long bolt of muslin (they were careful to keep it hidden, given its great value taking it out only under cover of night, when they could huddle together and gnaw the delicious strips in secret); June’s mother had been binding her chest anyway, for at fourteen Hee-Sung’s breasts were already full and womanly. She’d cut Hee-Sung’s hair short, too, as well as June’s, rubbed their faces with dirt each morning, and dressed them with school caps like boys, for there was always that certain danger. They’d witnessed soldiers from both sides kidnap other women and girls, some of them as young as June; they’d simply grab a girl from the ranks and drive off with her, and if she was lucky they wouldn’t kill her afterward, abandoning her someplace not too far away where she could be found or still make her way back.
When one of the soldiers reached June’s mother she stood up and immediately gave him a tiny pouch each of barley and rice, saying she had only one other for her entire family. He was a corporal, judging from the bars on his uniform, and he shouted for the other one and she gave it to him, whimpering. But June knew she’d just hidden much more than that in a sock of pantyhose beneath her feet and in the tips of her rubber shoes. The soldier pocketed it and he and his group were about to move on when he saw the children standing silently about in the weedy field, the ball left idle between them.
“Go ahead and play,” he said to them. His face was dirty and unshaven, his uniform caked with mud and dried blood.
None of them moved and he yelled, “Play! Play!”
One of the boys pushed the ball with his foot and another passed it on quickly to Hee-Sung, who awkwardly kicked at it. She had never played much soccer. The corporal muttered something and handed his rifle to another soldier and jumped down, talking about how there wasn’t proper sports instruction in the schools. Two of his comrades stepped down with him. He motioned to Hee-Sung as he asked for the ball and commanded, “Watch me!” She’d tried to meld into the scatter of the other children but she was older and taller than all of them. He made the ball play back and forth quickly between his feet and then crisply booted it with his instep to one of the soldiers, who passed it to the other. It went back again to the corporal and he passed it on directly to Hee-Sung, who bent down and stopped it with her hands.
“What are you doing?” he said, exasperated. “Trap it and pass it back!” Hee-Sung hesitated and then did as he ordered but when the ball rolled to him he just let it deflect off his foot. His expression had stiffened. As he walked to her everyone stood still and June’s mother began in desperation to call to him, though with an informal address, her voice sounding strangely youthful and demure, but he ignored her and when he reached Hee-Sung he pulled off her cap and took a long look at her short hair. He then held her by the neck and with his free hand pressed up between her legs. She crumpled to the ground, trying to push him away, while June’s mother was shouting for him to leave her alone, begging him. He finally released her and for a moment it seemed he was going to strike her or perhaps kick her. But he simply turned to mount the road again. Hee-Sung had crawled away but then the two other soldiers stood her up on her feet, saying she made for a “pretty boy.” The corporal told them they were moving on now but they kept pawing her, if not roughly, handling her short hair, her hips, and now her chest. One of them, a soldier whose eyes were set very close together, like an opossum’s, tested her there again and then ordered her to take off her shirt. She refused. He slapped her and then tore violently at it, exposing the binding about her chest, as well as the hidden shapes within the layers. June’s mother ran over to them, screaming, and the other soldier struck her with his fist and she fell heavily to the dirt. She was momentarily dazed and a front tooth was knocked out, her mouth and lip badly bleeding, and June rushed to her and dabbed at it with her sleeve, not knowing what else to do. She and the rest of the children were crying, as was Hee-Sung. She was terrified, her skinny shoulders quivering. The corporal was looking on from the road. The soldier told Hee-Sung to raise her arms and he pulled the binding loose, undoing it from her as if from a spool, and midway through, the packets of dried beef fell out.
“Well, look at this,” he said, picking them up. He inspected the jerky, and the labels. “Where did you get this?”
She didn’t answer.
“What are you, some kind of whore for the foreigners? This is American food.”
“Please, I just found those.”
“What did you do for them, to get such a present?”
“Nothing. I never did anything. Please, I’m telling the truth!”
“Sure you are.”
“Let’s see what else she has,” the other one said.
There was nothing else, this was obvious, but the soldier undid her anyway, with a horrid, meticulous patience. Soon she was completely bare on top, her breasts as pale as milk. She tried to cover herself but he had her keep her arms high, and all she could do was hide her face in the nooks of her elbows as she sobbed.
“Now there’s some sweet fruit,” the other soldier said.
“She’s mine,” the opossum-eyed soldier told him, now grabbing her by the arm.
“Maybe yours first!”
She seemed to lose control of her legs and they practically had to carry her up to the road, where they flagged down a covered truck. The soldiers quickly came to some agreement with the driver, who motioned to the rear. Very few of the soldiers were lucky enough to ride in vehicles. But as they dragged her to the back, Hee-Sung began to resist, her feet digging at the dirt road. The soldier lifted her and slung her over his shoulder and took her to the rear of the truck. She was pummeling his back, kicking her legs. His partner jumped up inside and he handed her to him, and then got in himself. He shouted to the driver but the truck didn’t move; it had stalled while idling. The driver turned over the engine several times before it caught. It was then that her mother, who’d scrabbled frantically up the embankment, reached it, and as it began to roll away she held on to the tailgate, suspended on its edge, Hee-Sung screaming from inside, Uhm-ma! Uhm-ma!, her mother screaming, Hee-Sung-ah! June was wailing, too, as were the twins, who stood frozen beside her, but she couldn’t hear herself for the terrible shrieking, their cries as sharp as if they were being flayed alive.
But it was another sound that overwhelmed them: the roar of two silvery jet planes flashing by overhead. The planes flew in low, shaking the ground as they instantly spanned the length of the valley, then careened far in the distance in a long, banking ascent. They disappeared almost completely, but then June could see they were arcing back. Suddenly the column of soldiers and refugees broke up and dispersed. People sprinted for the fields. The truck had sped up for a distance but now stopped and June’s mother climbed aboard while the two soldiers and a couple of others leaped out. But Hee-Sung and her mother did not. They were embracing, kissing, clothing each other in their arms, before the terrible onrush of sound and light.
When June opened her eyes the truck was gone. There had been a thunderous explosion; June and the twins had been knocked over by the force of the blast. There was an intense pressure in her ears and for several minutes she could not hear her own breathing. The planes had made only the one pass, firing a few rockets, and then flown away. She’d instinctively crouched over her siblings, and when she stood and looked back at the spot there was nothing but a burning half-chassis. She ordered her brother and sister to stay put and she ran there, in perfect silence, her heart feeling like it would burst out of her chest.
The rest of the truck was in small pieces, its parts on the road and blown for dozens of meters on either side. The section in flames lay at the rim of a blackened crater in the road that the explosion had dug two meters deep and many times as wide. But there was little else about. Later she would hear one of the soldiers say that the truck had been heavily loaded with munitions, and that one of the rockets had directly struck the covered bed of the truck. She searched the field below the road and saw the rent bodies of two soldiers on the periphery; the one with the pinched eyes had a large, jagged plate of metal lodged in his neck, his blood staining the ground in a small black patch. The other body was headless, but otherwise untouched. And she was ready for the most horrid discovery. But as long as she looked, circling back and forth, she could not find a single sign of her mother or sister. There was not a scrap of their clothing, not a lock of their hair. It was as if they had kited up into the sky, become the last wisps of the jet trails now diffusing with a southerly breeze, disappearing fast above her.
THE TRAIN HAD SETTLED into a steady pace, moving through the flat of the darkened valley at the speed of a fast horse trot, the locomotive’s rhythm and the radiant warmth of her siblings’ bodies finally ushering June into a state of virtual sleep. It was not wholly sleep because she did not yet dream—she never quite dreamed anymore. Instead, her mind rode alongside itself in a state of animal vigilance, such that she could see the three of them nested in the dull gray wrap of the blanket, their heads and feet tucked inside so that it looked like some huge spider’s or moth’s downy egg sac affixed on the boxcar, placed so that it might travel freely and survive. These last of their kind. If there were any purposeful thoughts bracing her now they simply marked the distances they were covering, the meter of the wheels upon the rails, the shriek of the turns, and the idea that if they could keep moving like this it would be their best chance of remaining together, staying sound. Her one resolve, just before falling sleep, was that they should stay on this train for as long as it would go, for as far as it might take them. There was almost no prospect of getting food on the train, as there would be at some camp; it was difficult to steal or beg anything inside the cars and all but impossible on top. But they were ground down by the road, and she calculated it might be worth eating nothing at all if they could stay cocooned like this and reach Pusan in the next couple of days. If she could administer a potion to make them sleep right through and so blunt the pangs in their bellies she would do so even if it meant them sliding dangerously close to death. For in every village there was a purveyor of herbal medicines who made teas for sleep—even the deepest sleep, if one wished, for the pained and dying.
But what would June in fact do if she had some of that tea now? She would not be afraid that they might drink too much. Maybe she would even steal some sugar or honey to make the drink delicious and sweet, have them gulp it and then lay them down just like this, clinging to her belly like they were her own children, and tell them a colorful story about the grand meal they’d soon enjoy with their cousins. She would give her life for them, but she had begun to understand that the other face of that will was that she could allow them to suffer only so much. They were in a grave condition. Their cheekbones, like her own, were sharply drawn now and jutting, but their bellies were unnaturally distended, the skin drum-tight and shiny. Ji-Young’s hair was beginning to fall out and Hee-Soo had a weeping rash on her back that was festering as it spread. Both of them were listless, dull-eyed, growing quieter by the hour, and they’d even ceased to wonder about their mother and sister; after the attack by the planes they’d asked constantly about where they might have gone, as June had told them their truck had sped off before the planes swooped in and that they would make their way to Pusan soon, if they weren’t there already. But in the last few days neither mentioned Hee-Sung or their mother, as if the privation had clarified their minds as much as their bodies, rendered away all infantile hope and wish and belief to leave only the unmysterious, the unmistakable, the real.
And yet June would not yet speak aloud what they already knew was the truth. It was not for them she delayed, but for herself. She cast a stony front to the world but in her sleep’s throes it was for the moment vanquished and she was once again the child she had been on the eve of the war, a too-tall, soft-spoken girl of eleven who was content to play with much younger children, who was still too shy to look the village boys in the eyes, who wanted nothing more than to sit in her father’s lap and hum along with his records while he drew on his corncob pipe, the smoke hanging fatly and sweetly about them. And the deep warmth she felt was not of her sleeping siblings but the heat of the ondol floor nearest the kitchen hearth, where in winter she often lay with a book, the housekeeper stoking the fire so hot that June was sure she’d be seared to the tiles if she read another page. In her sleep she could still believe that all of them would eventually reunite, for she hadn’t actually witnessed her mother’s and sister’s deaths, or, for that matter, her father’s. And then, for all she knew, her older brother, despite the surety of her instinct, might very well be hiking north through the hills with the Communists, beleaguered but alive. This was the waking picture in her mind. And even if she knew that all of this was illusory, perhaps the most perilous kind of self-lie, the kind that made one giddy and angry and desperate all at once, she might still choose to crawl inside of it anyway for as long as she could, let it have her breath if it wanted, let it extinguish her outright.
Her chest heaved at the close, used-up air beneath the tight dome of the blanket, and she involuntarily turned from her siblings and craned against the corner of the fabric so that the wind rushed over her eyes and nose. The air was frigid and tainted by the coally exhaust of the locomotive but she took it in and let it flood her lungs. She shivered terribly. The night sky was dying, brightening quickly with the light. She was awake but did not yet want to open her eyes. She wanted to sleep, to sleep a little bit again. But the train suddenly and violently bucked, sending her hurtling against the metal rib on the front side of the well. She struck it headfirst and was dazed for a second and when she opened her eyes she was half hanging off the edge between the cars. The train lurched forward once more and then finally stopped. Her nose felt as if it was smashed. It was only when she checked her own skin for blood that she realized they were gone. Her brother and her sister. She peered down and saw the blanket draped over the coupling, their satchel broken open beside the shiny rail, their few worthless possessions scattered in the dirt.
She screamed: “Ji-Young-a! Hee-Soo-na!”
She climbed down the ladder and jumped to the ground. But they weren’t there, not on either side of the boxcars. They were in a wide, dusky valley, no buildings or houses or even a road within sight.
“Ji-Young-a! Where are you? Hee-Soo-na! Answer me! Answer me!”
She got on her knees and looked under the wheels but they weren’t there. Other people had climbed down as well and were running toward the rear; the train had rolled a short distance before halting, perhaps the length of three or four cars. Some terrible shouting came now, and June followed it even though it was a grown man’s voice, running in her bare feet—her shoes had come off—and when she came upon him he was grasping his arm in a funny way. He had been thrown off the train as well and had broken it, the lower part of his arm bent grotesquely backwards, as if he had an extra elbow. He asked her for help but she didn’t answer because she heard the report of Ji-Young’s voice weakly calling, Noo-nah, noo-nah.
He was two cars down, lying close to the train. A woman was kneeling before him. She didn’t see Hee-Soo. At first it looked as if the woman were fitting her brother for a shoe, but when June got closer she saw what had happened and stopped a few paces short, unable to move on.
“Noo-nah . . .” Ji-Young said again.
“This is your little brother?” the woman said to June. June nodded.
“Then come here and help me! Well? Come on, girl, right now!”
June stepped forward and knelt down. “When I say so, pinch his leg with your hands, here, just below the knee. As hard as you can.”
June readied her hands.
Ji-Young moaned sharply with the pressure, crying miserably. The woman seemed to know what she had to do. She kept telling him not to look down, to keep his eyes closed, saying there was nothing to see. June would always think later that that was perversely right: for his foot was gone. The amputation was very clean. The stump was bleeding fitfully, the flow alternately stanched and then surging as the woman tried to bind his thin calf with a belt. The light was coming up now and the blood showed its pure color, while all else—the woman’s clothes, the arid ground—was washed out, depleted. It was then that June looked away from the tracks and noticed a figure lying belly down near the weedy field. It was Hee-Soo; she could tell by her thick mop of hair. For a moment June was sure that she was all right because her face was turned to her and her eyes were open, her mouth in a faint, if somewhat confused, smile. But she was dead. Both her legs were cut off. She had crawled all that way, and all her blood had run out.
The wheels of the train squealed and it began to inch forward, as though the locomotive was now pushing off the rails whatever obstacle it had struck. Then the train stopped for a moment before moving again. The woman’s own children, who sat on top of the boxcar, yelled for her to get back on. But the woman couldn’t cinch the belt tightly enough, and Ji-Young was bleeding freely again. The train kept moving, a little faster now, and the woman’s children began to shriek for their mother, high panic in their wails. She looked June in the eye and said to her, “You should get back on, child.”
“Please help us.”
“I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry . . .” She got up, pausing ever so slightly, and then hustled to the car where her children were, climbing quickly aboard.
Ji-Young was quiet now, breathing shallowly, as though he wasn’t very pained at all. June wound the belt around his leg and looped it through itself before pulling on it as hard as she could. Ji-Young screamed and momentarily fainted. But the bleeding stopped, and with all her strength she lifted her brother and cradled him. He was no heavier than kindling. And she began to run. One of the boxcar’s doors was partly open and she could catch it and hand him up to the people packed inside. Some of them were waving her on, beckoning her. The train was speeding up, beginning to leave her behind. It was their only chance now. But it was then that the belt came loose from Ji-Young’s leg and slipped off. The blood poured out as if from a spigot and she squeezed the stump as she ran, but one hand wasn’t strong enough. She could not do it. So she halted and laid him on the ground, gripping the stump again with two hands. The cars were slowly rolling past them, only a third of the train remaining.
“How come you stopped?” he murmured.
“I can’t run anymore.”
“Oh.” He was losing consciousness, the color draining from his face. “Will you come back for me?”
She nodded again.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to.”
She let go his still-warm hand, kissed his still-warm face. She stayed with him as long as she could. But when the last car of the train passed her she rose to her feet and steadied herself. And then she ran for her life.
What People are Saying About This
"[The Surrendered] is epic in scope, masterful in execution, heart stopping at times, and heartbreaking at others. The meticulous narrative unfolds over 52 years and across three continents. Nothing is rushed; nothing is overlooked. We can even feel the buzz of a window pane on our fingertips as rumbling Japanese military vehicles approach along a gravel road...Lee understands that in art and in stories what is perhaps most valuable is not what can be explained but what can be felt."
-The Boston Globe
"This is not a happy book, but it is a rewarding one. The Surrendered grabs your attention-sometimes terrifying you in the process-and doesn't let go until its final moment...Its pages are breathtakingly alive."
-The San Francisco Chronicle
"[Chang-rae Lee's] largest, most ambitious book."
-The New York Times Book Review
"Extremely well written, powerfully moving in places."
-The New Yorker
"Lee...writes dense and gorgeous prose...Lee shows great tenderness for his [characters], even as he refuses them easy redemption. The final paragraph of his beautiful and tragic novel is as sublime and transcendent as any I can remember. A."
"The narrative sweep of the novel turns out to irresistible...a novel so rich in the hearty pleasures of storytelling."
"A landmark novel about love and war. . . Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered . . . is impossible to put down."
-O, The Oprah Magazine
"With his signature empathy and artistry, Lee links emotionally complex events. . . . Profoundly committed to authenticity, and in command of a remarkable gift for multidimensional metaphors, Lee dramatizes the guilt and "mystery of survival" in scenes of scalding horror and breathtaking beauty. . . . Lee has created a masterpiece of moral and psychological imagination unsparing in its illumination of the consequences of bloodshed and war."
"Beautiful, riveting, piercingly haunting . . . The settings and times are masterfully interwoven to form an elegant, disturbing inquiry into courage, love, loyalty, and mercy. . . . This is a book to read in two or three long sittings, gulping pages, turning them as fast as possible to reach the perfect, inevitable ending."
-Kate Christensen, Elle
"The odyssey of a Korean War refugee becomes first the subject of, then a haunting overture to, the award-winning Korean-American author's fourth novel.
Lee's introspective and interrogatory novels seek the sources of their characters' strengths and weaknesses in their own, and their families' stories- nowhere more powerfully than in this exhaustive chronicle of three hopeful lives tempered in the crucibles of wars and their enduring aftermaths. In a patiently developed and intermittently slowly paced narrative that covers a 30-year span and whose events occur in four countries and on three continents, the entangled histories of three protagonists are revealed. We first encounter 11-year-old June Han, traveling with her twin siblings following the deaths of their parents toward safety with their uncle's family. June's willed stoicism and suppression of fear serve her well in extremity, but they will have a far different effect on her later life-shaped when she is rescued by American G.I. Hector Brennan (himself in flight from the memory of a painful loss). Hector brings June to Sylvie Tanner, a minister's wife who runs an orphanage (and whose own demons owe much to the savagery of history in another place and another time). Each character's past, motivations and future prospects are rigorously and compassionately examined, as the author follows them after the war. In its ineffably quiet way, there really is something Tolstoyan in this searching fiction's determination to understand the characters specifically as members of families and products of other people's influences. The characterizations of Hector and Sylvie are astonishingly rich and complex, and the risk taken in depicting the adult June as the woman readers will hope she would not become is triumphantly vindicated.
A major achievement, likely to be remembered as one of this year's best books.
"Lee's masterful fourth novel bursts with drama and human anguish as it documents the ravages and indelible effects of war. . . . Powerful, deeply felt, compulsively readable and imbued with moral gravity, the novel does not peter out into easy redemption. It's a harrowing tale: bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking and not to be missed."
-Publishers' Weekly (starred)
"A completely engrossing story of great complexity and tragedy. Lee's ability to describe his characters' sufferings, both physical and mental, is extraordinarily vivid; one is left in awe of the human soul's ability to survive the most horrific experiences."
Reading Group Guide
With his three previous novels, Chang-rae Lee has established himself as one of the most talented writers of his generation: “a master craftsman” (The Washington Post) and “one of our most riveting and remarkable novelists” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). His debut, Native Speaker, a thought-provoking exploration of the immigrant experience, was “one of the year’s most provocative and deeply felt first novels” (Vanity Fair), and announced the arrival of a major talent. His follow-up, A Gesture Life, written “with the kind of deceptive ease often aspired to but seldom achieved” (People), cemented his reputation. And in his most recent novel, Aloft, he proved his vast range and depth of feeling, prompting the Los Angeles Times to announce that “Lee has done in Aloft what we hope all good books will do: renew our faith in humankind.”
Now, with The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee has returned with a novel that amplifies everything we’ve seen in his earlier work. The haunting story exploring themes of identity and belonging, love, war, and memory begins with an orphan girl in the Korean War, but soon takes us both backward and forward in time, from Korea to New Jersey to Manchuria and Italy. June Han is only a girl when the Korean War leaves her orphaned; Hector Brennan is a young GI who’s fled the petty tragedies of his small town to serve his country. When the war ends, their lives collide at a Korean orphanage, where they vie for the attentions of Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful but deeply damaged missionary wife whose elusive love transforms everything. It is not until thirty years later and on the other side of the world that June and Hector are forced to come together and confront the mysterious secrets of their past, the shocking acts of love and violence that bind them together.
A stunning story about how love and war inalterably change the lives of those they touch, The Surrendered is elegant, suspenseful, and unforgettable: a profound meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the power of love, and the possibilities for mercy and salvation.
ABOUT CHANG-RAE LEE
Chang-rae Lee is the author Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. He is also the recipient of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a NAIBA Book Award for Fiction, an Asian American Literary Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Oregon Book Sward, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and QPB’s New Voices Award. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-rae Lee teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
A CONVERSATION WITH CHANG-RAE LEE
Q. You’ve said that the inspiration for this book was something that happened to your father, who was a refugee during the Korean War. What happened, and how did it lead to the novel? Was anything else in the novel based on actual events?
Indeed the first chapter is very loosely based on something that happened to my father during the war: one night, his younger brother was killed in a terrible accident while they were riding on top of a refugee train. My father told only of the narrow details of the accident and so I had to fictionalize most all of the surrounding circumstances of action and character, which eventually, as inevitably happens in writing, led to other stories that I hadn’t originally conceived of or anticipated. This is the only part of the novel that was based on actual events.
Q. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. You’ve remarked, however, that your book is not so much a war novel as it is a story about the effects of mass conflict on the human psyche and spirit. Can you elaborate?
There is certainly much in this book that could be found in a “war novel” and yet in the conception of it my focus was always on the “aftermath,” what follows the egregious violence and loss as manifest in the hearts and minds of those who have experienced such conflict. In this novel I wanted to explore the varieties of human reaction to war: guilt, heartache, bitterness, self-loathing, confusion, detachment etc. And then perhaps the most haunting reaction of all, which is a quiet, almost invisible, endurance.
Q. Were you influenced by the suffering that we’ve seen in recent years in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan?
I think we’ve all been influenced, whether one followed the conflicts closely or not. I’ve not had any direct experience with a combatant or civilian but I did read much of what I thought was excellent reporting from the war zones, profiles and stories of horrific injury and suffering, but also of amazing luck and chance, of mystifying survival. I’ve been awed by those tales as I was awed by my father’s story of the train, and as a novelist I began to consider all the possibilities for storytelling and psychological investigation.
Q. This novel took you six years to write. How did you construct it? Was the whole framework in your mind from the beginning, or did it come to you piece by piece? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you keep shifting back and forth between the Korean War period in the early 1950s, New York in the 1980s, and China in the 1930s, as you do in the book?
The novel, as it appears, is nothing like the book I first conceived. Although I did have a clear sense of who the main characters were, I didn’t know until I was quite deep into the book what truly concerned and dogged them. For me, structure derives from character, as what we need and/or wish to see and the order and scale in which we see those things depend mostly on what I want to tease out about this or that character. One of the challenges in this book is that there are multiple main characters, and thus the orchestration of past and present, and of action and repose, was especially difficult, and all but impossible to figure out and outline beforehand. So I wrote what I needed at a given time, say, a scene set in Manchuria in 1934, to answer in part my own questions about a character who first appears in the 1950s. I think that’s what happens in the writing of most novels – the writer writes to answer certain pressing questions, questions that mirror the reader’s concerns. Only later did I decide on the final ordering of the chapters.
Q. What sort of research did you do?
I read a lot of first person accounts of the Korean War, from both soldiers and civilians. I also looked at many photographs from the war and afterwards. Much of these were simply shots of the ruined landscape and dwellings but I found them quite helpful anyway, as a lot of what gives one (or at least me) confidence to write about something is the visual, as well the factual. This is what led me to go to northern Italy and find the actual church that the main characters make a pilgrimage of sorts to in the book. I needed to see it and the surrounding ground in person, even though I wasn’t sure at the time that the story would end up there.
Q. One of your main characters is Hector Brennan, a young soldier with movie-star looks from Ilion, a small town in upstate New York. His father doesn’t want him to go to war, but names him after the doomed Trojan hero of the Iliad, who is miraculously protected from death until the gods decree that he must die. Did you rely on the Iliad to any significant degree in structuring or conceiving your book?
I think the Iliad, and the Odyssey, loom over much of Western literature, not just because of their greatness, but because of the sobering narrative of human history, which is in great part the narrative of war and postwar. Aren’t these, sadly, the two primary stories of our time? But it’s funny, for “Hector” was the name of a very different character that I was sketching out almost ten years ago, a man of partly Latino background whose namesake was more familial than Homeric. But in doing some reading I came across a mention of the town of Ilion, and its history as the home of Remington Arms, maker of famous rifles, and the connections seemed serendipitously rich to me. And yet I certainly didn’t want to make too much of them: my Hector is nothing like Priam’s son, and is almost willfully anti-heroic and even ignoble.
Q. When your Hector points out to his father that his namesake was ultimately killed and his city destroyed, the father tells him, “No matter, boy. They tell us stories not to live by but to change. Make our own.” Can we ever change the age-old story of war and its horrors?
That’s the hope, isn’t it, the ultimate dream of humanists and good statesmen?
Q. Another literary touchstone of your novel is A Memory of Solferino by J. H. Dunant, a nineteenth-century work about the aftermath of a massive battle fought in 1859 between French and Austrian forces near a tiny Italian hill town. The carnage there, and especially the appalling suffering of the wounded, was the impetus for the founding of the Red Cross. Why is that book so special to Sylvie Tanner, the missionary wife who helps to run the Korean orphanage? How did you come across it?
Dunant’s book was celebrated for its unflinching descriptions of the wounded and their needless suffering, and its call for the place of mercy during wartime. I remember looking into the origins of the Red Cross, as the organization’s presence was often noted in the war accounts I read. And I wondered if it might be the notion of mercy that drove much of Sylvie Tanner’s energies and failings in my story, and as I was stunned myself by Dunant’s book I felt it could be a kind of precious object for this impassioned, fragile person, both a lash and a charm.
Q. June Han, the young Korean girl who is orphaned at the beginning of your novel, is not an especially likeable character as an adult. But what we learn about her in your opening chapter puts her later actions in a much more sympathetic context. Was it essential for you to begin the book as you did, for this and other reasons?
Indeed it became clear to me that I should begin with the story of June’s childhood, even though it was perhaps the fourth or fifth section that I wrote. She is a difficult person, for sure, and it made me want to contextualize her childhood experiences in the war, as well as find a language and a way of seeing for the novel that was simultaneously quite intimate and removed. It’s also a dramatically active opening, which I liked. My previous novels have fairly subdued first chapters, so this opening was attractive to me.
Q. June eventually goes into the antiques business in the United States, as does her son. Isn’t this an ironic career for someone who has experienced so much loss, who has witnessed the brutal smashing of everything that we call civilization?
It is ironic, although part of me also felt that June was someone who had in many ways ceased to be able to value the beauty of anything, that her sensibility and world was almost completely depleted. In this sense, it seemed right that she deal with older objects, rather than the new, for she is a person who has never quite escaped the past, despite all her furious efforts.
Q. In another instance of irony noted by June herself, she comes down with stomach cancer in middle age. As a starving youngster in Korea, she was obsessed with satisfying her constant hunger. The cancer paradoxically makes her feel full, but it is also consuming her, slowly depriving her of life itself. Is June’s cancer a metaphor for the psychic and emotional hunger she feels throughout her life, as well as the physical hunger she experienced as a girl?
Well, everything and nothing in a novel is metaphorical. I will say, however, that I was taken by the idea of how deeply hungry – and even greedy – June is for life, and how cruel it is that she should be dying from this “fullness” in her belly. What we crave is often what we get.
Q. Addiction to alcohol and drugs plays an important part in your story. Can it be explained as more collateral damage from the traumas of war? Or is it ultimately inexplicable?
Addiction is certainly an expression of suffering and the need for amelioration, but it’s also of course a manner of self-indulgence in the form of self-punishment, which is what all the players are engaged in.
Q. The notion of surrender is of course central to your story, as your title implies. What is it that your characters surrender to, or resist surrendering to?
They surrender to forces beyond anyone’s control; to their own delusions and headlong desires; to their own darkest selves, who they know to be mistaken; and perhaps, ultimately, to each other, for better or worse.
Q. One of your characters says that there’s a surplus of loving mercy in the world, but it’s no good at all if it’s misspent. Do you agree with that? Is it possible for human beings to discern when, or if, mercy is being misspent?
Actually, I don’t think I do agree. Or I hope I don’t. I’m sure much unhappiness and wrong has come about from the misapplication of mercy but there’s little else to do but for us to continue, even as we can’t know if we’re right or wrong. What else is there for people to do? Few things are within our control, and if anything, mercy is one.
Q. There are missionaries in your story, some of whom act out of explicitly religious motives. But none of your three main characters is motivated by religious impulses as such. Two very emphatically profess no religious beliefs at all. Yet your novel concludes in an ancient Catholic church in Italy. Do religious belief and unbelief somehow meet there, and if so, how?
I don’t think this novel has much to say about religious belief, one way or the other. I suppose a telling detail is that the church June and Hector visit isn’t primarily a house of God, but rather a sanctuary expressly devoted to the unimpeachable value and dignity of man.
Q. You’ve said that as you were growing up your father always seemed to be a cheerful, optimistic man who was not haunted by anything. But as you learned when you were in college, he had in fact gone through traumatic experiences during the Korean War, and the effects of those experiences remained with him. Also, your mother died from stomach cancer when you were a young man. Is it possible for you to say how deeply the events and emotional dynamics within your own family have informed this novel?
They have certainly informed me, particularly my mother’s struggle with cancer, which occurred almost 20 years ago, but I can only say this after the fact. I didn’t consciously think about her illness when I was conceiving this novel. Sometimes I think you never need to write about certain things directly, because they’ll always arise anyway, and that it’s the unanticipated mutation that makes for the most interesting forms, at least artistically.
Q. Your characters are irrevocably changed by what happens to them, in some ways damaged beyond repair. But they are not simply creatures of fate. As Hector says, “Like everyone else he was at the helm, whether he wished it or not.” Can these two realities ever be fully reconciled?
The hero of my first novel, Native Speaker, tells himself (after the accidental death of his son), to “stop this falling in love with Fate.” For me that’s the rub, as I see it, which is that fate often prevails but sometimes, too, because we wish it, or make it so. I think this is the struggle for Hector, particularly, as he attempts to figure out how much agency he really has, or more to the point, how much of it he wants.
Q. Your last book, Aloft, was about a contemporary Italian-American suburbanite and his multi-ethnic family. In your first two books, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, you wrote primarily about Korean and Japanese immigrants in the United States. The Surrendered is clearly your longest and most intricate novel, and perhaps your most emotionally powerful. Is it fair to say that this is the novel you’ve been writing towards in your previous works – in theme, structure, and language?
I don’t know that I’ve been “writing towards” this book, in the sense of culmination. I did decide early on, because of the various characters and storylines, that this would have to be a larger book than the previous three, and also one that needed to be told in 3rd person narration. It was clearly a challenge for me, and I will admit right now that I struggled mightily with all the various elements throughout the writing. I cut perhaps 200 pages and shifted course several times. I was often dispirited and felt at times that the book was spinning out of control. And yet the larger scale of the book helped me, too, in that I eventually relented and ceased trying to make perfect sense of everything and went back to thinking and working as I always do, which is sentence by sentence. I will always believe that language always provides, in this way.
A Conversation with the Author
It is hard to recall the literary grace, aesthetic intelligence, and human truths of Chang-rae Lee's first three novels without hearing the distinctive voices of the books' first-person narrators as they unfold, and sometimes avoid, their individual tales of immigration, identity, assimilation. The way the protagonists of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft tell their respective stories is, in important ways, exactly what the novels are about.
So it is something of a surprise to open Lee's fourth book, The Surrendered, and not be greeted by an identifiable, if slippery, "I". Instead we're swept along by an impersonal narrative consciousness that relates the travails of an 11-year-old refugee and her family caught in the horror of the Korean War, then transfers its attention to upstate New York some years earlier to introduce a young man destined for Korea as a soldier, then moves further back in time to Manchuria in the 1930s to reveal the tragic childhood of a third central character, the daughter of American missionaries. All three -- June Han, Hector Brennan, and Sylvie Tanner -- will come together in a Korean orphanage at the end of the war. Two of them, June and Hector, will carry the profound scars of their experience of love and loss with them as Lee's ambitious fiction traverses three subsequent decades, following them to metropolitan New York and, ultimately, to Italy, for a concluding scene that is imbued with a haunting, visceral, inexplicable yet—and this is a sign of the novel's brave achievement—ineluctable beauty.
In early February, I interviewed Chang-rae Leeabout The Surrendered at the New York offices of his publisher, to which the author had traveled from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches in the University's Creative Writing Program. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. The tape begins in the middle of an exchange about Don DeLillo, whose Point Omega had just been published that week. --James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief, Barnes & Noble Review
James Mustich: You’ve met DeLillo?
Chang-rae Lee: We did a reading together once, and we had dinner a couple of weeks after that, just the two of us. He is a kind man. Very modest. Very smart. You could see where approaches to his fiction come from, just looking at him in a certain way. He’s very observant, and he’s kind of sly, and you know the brain is just working, BUHM-BUHM, all the time. Dark sense of humor.
JM: There’s a profile of him in the papers today. He must have been asked something about his demeanor, because he said, “I only smile when I’m by myself.” That’s a great line.
CRL: [LAUGHS] I think that’s more a line than...
JM: Exactly. He’d been saving that one up.
CRL: Well, we had a nice dinner. He’s one of my heroes. He inspired my first book in a lot of ways.
CRL: Yes. Do you know his novel, The Names?
CRL: It’s a great novel. It’s a novel all about the power of language. Early on in the book, the main character’s wife writes a list of attributes, and I thought it was a terrific way to encapsulate a character, to present that character to a reader. I thought, “I’m going to do that, too.” So when I met him, I said, “Don, I stole that from you.” He said, “Yeah, I know.” [LAUGHS] The next time I saw him he gave me a first edition. I love all his books. But The Names is my favorite. I’ve said before how much I admire DeLillo, just for his feel and -- well, “manipulation” is the wrong word, but his working of language. You really feel as if he’s hammering it out. It has that worked beauty. It’s flinty. It’s not beautiful in any conventional sense, and yet it has a singular, almost metallic, elemental beauty to it, like this ore that came out of the ground. It’s funky but then it has this glint to it that just fires.
JM: That’s a wonderful image. But we’d better get to work. We’re here to talk about your new novel, The Surrendered, which I will admit to admiring a great deal.
CRL: Thank you.
JM: It’s a very rich book, surprising and very satisfying in the ineffable way that only an ambitious novel can be. Can you talk a bit about what started you off on this book? Was there an image or an incident or something you were trying to accomplish that gave you its kernel?
CRL: I have to say that I don’t know what started me off. Because it took me so long to write this book, I’ve forgotten its origins -- the first kernel. I’ve been writing this book since before I finished A Gesture Life, which is my second novel. That goes back to the late ‘90s. The main characters -- the soldier, the missionary wife, and the orphan -- they all appeared in little sketches I wrote back then, but in completely different forms. I have to say I didn’t quite know what I was writing about then. I wanted to write about the Korean War, but I had no entry into it that made the kind of sense it needs to make for a novelist. It didn’t quite make emotional sense to me at the time. Historically it did, I suppose, but who cares about that? -- I’m not an historical novelist. I wasn’t sure what my interest in these characters was. And I wasn’t writing them together.
My first attempts were to write, say, Hector’s story (although he wasn’t called Hector at the time), or Sylvie’s story, or June’s story -- each separately. Only after I finished Aloft did I decide that maybe the key to writing this book and actually getting it done was to think about all these characters as belonging to the same story. Which scared me, because they were profoundly different people. The connections and ties I would find between them in writing the book, of course, didn’t exist beforehand.
So it’s a strange sort of book, because the genesis of it was three singular lines that were not supposed to be connected (at least in my mind, they weren’t), and which I tried consecutively: first Hector, then June, then Sylvie -- again, with very different visages and backgrounds than they would each ultimately have.
JM: What struck me immediately about this book, in contrast to your first three novels, is the absence of a distinctive first person voice. During The Surrendered’s long gestation, were they at any point telling their stories in the first person?
CRL: They weren’t. I think that was one of the things that I was struggling with. I hadn’t fully decided if I wanted this to be a story about someone telling his story, or her story, which is what the first three books are very much about -- aside from everything else they’re about.
What really made the book come together, I think, was a revisitation on my part of my father’s experience in the war. That took me back to some research that I did for an essay that I wrote in college about his experience during the Korean War.
JM: He was how old then?
CRL: He was 11 or 12 years old. And his family, like June’s family, was in the north before the division, and fled south on the eve of hostilities. Also like June, he lost a sibling on the train that carried him south. But he never gave me many details. His war story was three or four sentences. Remembering that story about the war is what brought everything together -- I don’t know if I want to say thematically, but it brought together something about the characters and their backgrounds, the kind of experience and kind of wounds that they might have shared.
If you look at The Surrendered, it’s really not a book about the Korean War. It uses the Korean War, and it observes the Korean War, but it’s really a story about the emotional aftermath of war, which for me was interesting especially when I considered my father, who is such a soft-spoken, placid, gentle fellow -- none of his actions or anything he did in his life would ever betray that such a horrible experience had been his.
JM: Had you known about it until you did research in college?
CRL: Not until college. Doing that essay prompted certain ideas about the Korean War, and I’d always thought that if I was ever a writer I would want to write about the Korean War, but not really thinking about my father’s experience during it. But in some ways, that story, and housing that story in the vessel of June, was the right overture to the rest of the book. It gave me a way to think about all these different characters, that they had some cosmic connection despite their differences.
JM: The book has a vast canvas. From that overture in Korea in 1950, you move back in time to Hector’s childhood in upstate New York, and to Sylvie’s in Manchuria in the 1930s, and then forward to Manhattan and Italy in 1986, and there’s a lot of reference to Solferino in the 19th century, where a fierce battle in the war for Italian independence and unification was fought. In fact, as this book unfolded itself before me, I was surprised -- being a great admirer of your early novels -- at how large the canvas was, not in terms of emotional content, but in sheer narrative scope. Nothing in the earlier books prepared me for that.
JM: I’m wondering if there was a different in the experience of composition because of that scope. Did it take you so long in part because it was more of a struggle? Did this book require a kind of maturity or confidence that you grew into through the first three books?
CRL: Well, I’ll say this: at every point at which I was expanding the canvas, I felt as if I was absolutely going to lose control. [LAUGHS]
JM: [LAUGHS] I have a question written down right here: “Did you ever feel like the book was spinning out of control?” Not that I sensed any lose of control as I was reading, but it struck me that it might have been an issue in the writing.
CRL: At every turn -- when you turn that page and it says “Manchuria,” the feeling that I had when starting that section was, “I need to jump off this cliff, and I’m going to jump off this cliff -- but darn it, I’m terrified.” I think my experience as a novelist, and my experience with storytelling, having written the three other books, gave me the stubbornness and the blind faith—and plain stupidity—to jump!
Yes, it was something that I hadn’t done before. In A Gesture Life, there is a back story that goes back into the war, and maybe that was good training for me for this book. But to have three different characters who are not telling their own stories, that was new. In some ways, it was a very disorienting experience. I’m not the sort of writer who can plan out things. Mostly I have no idea where I’m going. And even as I’m building, say, Manchuria into a story that has its own arc and its own aims, I am wondering to myself, “How in the world is this connected to anything else in those other lines?” That’s something that I realized in the course of the book -- you know, you draw it out in your mind. You do thought experiments, and somehow you think, “Of course, yes, it will come together somehow.” But actually when you’re doing it, there’s no clue to how it’s going to work out. The actual writing of it disproves that you can actually plan any of those connections. You can’t.
JM: The stories of these three lives are extremely entwined, but they all come together at only one point, and then the book goes forward and backward in the individual stories. Did you write it in discrete sections, rather than consecutively? How did you arrive at the final architecture of the book?
CRL: This was one of the challenges, as I did not write it in sequence. Nor did I write it in sections. I didn’t write Sylvie’s section and Hector’s section, and then splice them together. What happened was, I would try to imagine a certain moment, say, in Hector’s life, and then, in terms of orchestrating that with other skeins of the story, decide if this is the moment that I want to hear about, if the story needs this information, and that it makes sense and is relevant and is expanding the story – as well as sharpening it.
But as you say, this is not just a story about three different people in one time. It’s three different people, and their settings and times are varied. So it’s not three people sitting in a room and you’re examining their consciousnesses. There’s no ready anchor, even as you move through the story. I mean, there is an anchor that emerges, but it wasn’t apparent to me as the writer what that anchor really was. I’m not sure that I’ve found that anchor even now. It’s not that I conceived of one and that that helped me write the book. In many ways, I tried to focus on the small, even as I knew the big canvas needed to be filled. It’s a funny kind of feeling when you think you have this huge mural to do, but boy, this little 6-by-6-inch section of it -- here I have to make it perfect. Even though that 6-by-6 section has to absolutely fit somewhere in the mural and you don’t yet know its placement.
JM: In a wonderful way the final scene ties everything together in a completely unexpected way, at least for me. It’s almost as if it’s the novel you’ve created that is the anchor -- not something with the book, but the very novel itself. It’s this ur-story that you’ve created that transcends and expands all the constituent parts. But one doesn’t recognize that until the very end.
CRL: Well, that’s what I was trying to describe to you. That ur-feeling, that ur-novel is so beyond the grasp of the writer in the moment. I don’t quite know how to explain it. I guess it’s just artistic faith and experience and trying to understand all those characters and times in your head. After a while, it permeates you so deeply that something coalesces -- there are these mystical connections that aren’t consciously made but somehow are there.
JM: Yes. There’s a kind of faith in the novel -- as a form, if you will -- in this book, that’s very rare in contemporary writing, where there’s more typically more faith in the writing than in the novel.
CRL: Yes. [LAUGHING] I would definitely say that this is my most 19th-century novel.
JM: It doesn’t feel old-fashioned, but it has that kind of -- well, faith in the novel is the best way I can put it, faith that this created thing is its own organism. It’s interesting that it’s not written in the first person, because the first person can have a very odd distancing effect. What struck me in thinking of this book in relation to your earlier ones is how much closer, in a way, I felt to the characters in The Surrendered than I did to the characters who were speaking to me directly in the other novels.
CRL: Absolutely. And you know why?
JM: No. Tell me.
CRL: Because those first-person narrators are -- well, they are products of postmodernism. They are narrators who are very conscious of their very act of telling, very conscious of genre, of kinds of narratives, conscious of a certain kind of self-construction and self-creation. In some ways, it’s incredibly intimate, intellectually so, but in other ways, emotionally, there’s a serious displacement in those books.
CRL: I was interested in telling those stories in that way – obviously for different reasons with each book. While the new book celebrates novel-writing, I don’t think that it’s conscious of novel-writing in the same manner as my previous books were.
JM: I think that’s true. That’s one of the things that’s so striking about it: there’s an embrace of narrative in the novel, narrative as a thing taking care of itself that sweeps us along. And while clearly, sentence-by-sentence, image-by-image, scene-by-scene, you are investing an enormous amount of intelligence and creativity in the composition, the reader is not as aware of the writing as he is in the earlier books.
CRL: Yes. I think partly that’s due to the subject matter for me. As I started writing, I made a decision early on to get out of my own way, to let myself story-tell more. I don’t know that war stories -- or post-war stories -- need much ornamentation, at least the kind of ornamentation that I’ve been interested in. The story took me over a little bit, and told me not what was going to happen in the story, but how to write it. I definitely felt much more that I was reporting, rather than “crafting.” This is not to say I didn’t labor over every sentence. I certainly hope the craft is there. I hope the little moments are worthwhile. But never before have I been so willing to allow things to happen. In my other books, things do happen, but they are kind of bookends to the real action, which for me was an exploration of consciousness. Not that I don’t get into the consciousness of the people in The Surrendered, but you could say there’s not as much anxiety about it.
JM: They’re each rich creations, but they’re pretty set in their characters, right from the start. The sense you get of June early on, or Hector early on, is enriched by the time you get to the end of the novel, but it’s not different.
CRL: No. There are a couple of ways that I saw this book. One way was that I saw a certain kind of coloration to the book. I actually saw it as a kind of high-burnished grayness. I thought that sort of hue -- the same color that the church has at the end of the novel -- would infuse the book. A lovely color that’s nearly devoid of color.
The other thing that I thought was: this is a tragedy. It took me back to all the tragedies that I’d ever read -- Homeric, Shakespearean. In a way, I think those are the stories that helped me write these characters. Not so much what happens, but the characters, and how they take on all this suffering. There may not be the sort of Shakespearean or Greek hubris in this book, but there is this real larding on of wounds and misery. They all hold it so heavily! And that’s what I love about Homer, I love about Shakespeare, I love about Euripides, Aeschylus. I thought I would like to write characters like theirs.
JM: What’s astonishing to me is that, even though you are unflinching in observing the limitations of these characters, especially June and Hector, by the end of the book, in that last scene in the church of Solferino, he has endured his way to a certain kind of heroism, and she has endured her way to a certain kind of nobility. It’s interesting that you brought up tragedy, because -- and this goes back to what I was saying before about the novel, but tragedy is even more germane to what I was trying to express -- there’s something about the way the story is told that evokes those qualities from them in a way that’s almost related to something beyond character. Does that make any sense?
CRL: Absolutely. In some ways, they have all their minute histories and all their minute psychologies, too. But in the end, I don’t think the novel is primarily interested in those histories. I think the novel is interested in -- the story is interested in -- seeing these figures, these very small figures, against the backdrop or in the wake of immense forces.
That’s how I saw the proportions of who these people were and what was around them. War. Violence. Heartbreak. Loss. These huge things that come out of conflict. And they’re like this [Makes gesture of smallness with his hands]. Whereas in my first three books, it’s completely the other way around. The “I” is so big and the world, although described, is not.
CRL: This maybe connects up to my willingness to tell all these different stories. I felt that I needed to write the world, to write a world that was not the real world, but this emotional, tragic world, this world -- I think that you used the right word: this world that we must endure.
JM: It really felt to me at the end of the book that I had just experienced something on the scale of a Verdi opera. It was the same kind of created world where large forces are at play and human figures are moving through their shadows.
CRL: Yes. And for it to work you have to invest in these figures. You have to understand them and feel that they’re really alive. But in the end, I think part of their nobility -- if a difficult character like June has any nobility and decency – is that they’ve gone through this crucible. In June’s case, she’s continued to survive, no matter what she’s done or not done for her son or for herself, no matter the hardness or cruelty she has exhibited.
It’s like this: there’s something poignant in watching an ant move. You just can’t help it. She picks up this little breadcrumb that’s three times her size and just keeps walking. The more you watch that, the more you’re moved. Look at this modest but incredible scene of life. I’ve told people: I don’t know what this book is about in terms of war – that you can tell me. But I think it’s essentially about how awestruck one can be at the world, which includes history, political forces but also the acts of a single human being.
JM: Talk a little bit about the volume that Sophie treasures, the blue book that becomes a kind of talisman for all three characters.
CRL: It was A Memory of Solferino, and it was written by the founder of the Red Cross, J. H. Dunant. Again, I can’t quite remember how I got to that book.
JM: That’s what I was going to ask you.
CRL: I have no idea. It must have been some idea about mercy. But misplaced mercy. Dunant’s idea at the beginning, of course, was “Let’s have some gentlemanly protocol so that after the carnage we can all move in and help out these suffering soldiers,” which is a wonderful humanitarian desire. He never talked about the fact that we shouldn’t have these god-awful wars! But then reading his book I became more curious. He was actually the first winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was just a normal, ordinary, sort of well-to-do fellow who had been traveling in northern Italy, and he came upon this battle, and it changed his life.
But after reading his book, particularly his descriptions of all these soldiers in a church, I thought that it hooked up with an idea I had about Hector. In fact, Hector in a previous iteration was a defrocked priest, like an Army chaplain. And isn’t an Army chaplain an interesting figure, too: what a strangely contradictory function and presence. So I think that the original angle was a kind of inquiry into mercy, and what mercy really was. In the book, mercy is played out in different ways -- you know, the double-edged sword of it. I found out later that, of course, there’s this church, a real church in Lombardy that I describe at the end of the book, which is one of the most incredible churches you’ll ever see.
JM: Is the real church as you describe it, filled with shelves of human bone?
JM: Let me read your description.
They were not entombed as he’d expected but rather on open display. Behind the altar, at a subterranean level, open to view, were built-in shelves stocked tight with the bones. They were arranged by kind -- piles of femurs and tibias, nested pelvises and jaws. There were bins full of the smaller bones of the feet, of the hands, like countless pieces of chalk. Many bundles of ribs. Then, rising to the cornice of the vaulting, even stacked above it, were rows upon rows of skulls.
Have you been to the real church in Italy?
CRL: Yes. I went there not knowing whether or how it was going to figure into the book. But when I saw it, I knew that it was absolutely where the story was going to end up. It’s a fairly modest-looking church. People go to Italy and look into churches all the time. They all look gorgeous, even if some are more Spartan than others. This one in particular -- this one is astonishing because you go in and you don’t realize at first what you’re looking at, and it’s not until you step into the main area that you realize it’s full of bones. It’s the kind of church that maybe all churches should be. Not a place in celebration of God, but one of man, and not Michelangelo’s man -- not in alabaster, but humbled and ruined and fallen, and maybe forgotten, too. Just all these old bones. I remember my kids saying to me, with a little horror, “Daddy, why are we here?” We’d only been in pretty churches, you know, which were boring. “What is this church?!” [LAUGHS] And all the skulls looking out at us. But I thought, “This is perfect.”
It’s a funny thing. Because what would have happened to this book if I had not taken that trip? You’ve got to wonder. It frightens the hell out of me to think, “What if I hadn’t gone?”
JM: Having it as a destination serves a narrative purpose, but the imagery at the end also casts its gray light back over everything that you’ve read.
CRL: Over everything.
JM: What would this book have been without that?
CRL: I don’t know. I would have written a different book, I guess.
JM: It’s an extraordinary conclusion. One thing I’ve admired about your writing since the first book is that it has a distinctive and keen sense of imagery, sentence-by-sentence. In this book, there’s a kind of orchestration of imagery across the historical periods, across the three lives you’re telling, on a vast scale. Did you find yourself writing in a different way? There’s no apparent backfilling or patching when you’re reading the book. It all unfolds seamlessly. I’m wondering, in terms of drafting it, did you get to a point where you had the whole shape from beginning to end, and then went back to do another draft, start to finish?
CRL: My editor, Sarah McGrath, helped me greatly with this book. There were other storylines that I cut out completely. The book originally had an entirely different frame, where we come upon Hector as a dying old man, attended by his nurse. There was another whole section about Hector’s life in New Jersey and lots of other storylines. I cut those, but I don’t know that I rewrote anything that you see. I have a hard time revising sentences, because I spend an inordinate amount of time on each sentence, and the sentence before it, and the sentence after it. My paragraphs -- I’m not saying that they’re perfect, but I get them so that they do what they need to do. The problem is, sometimes they’re irrelevant, or they’re not considering the right thing. So I am someone who has to cut and then rewrite. I can’t massage language. So that’s maybe why it feels as if there are no seams. I don’t know.
There’s no manicuring in this book -- there’s chopping off the limbs and then suture. [LAUGHS] I think that’s the case with all my books. It’s a terrible way to write. This is a fairly long book already, and I probably wrote 200 more pages. I wish I could have used them, or I wish I could have said, “I just didn’t write that that well,” and I’d just rewrite it. But it’s stuff that just doesn’t make any sense for the book as it is, so I couldn’t use it. I tell my writing students, “You shouldn’t write the way I do,” because they always ask me how I work. I say, “This is the way I do it, and it’s not a great way.” It takes a long time. It’s very frustrating. You make a commitment to the small without a real sense sometimes of how, or even if, it’s going to work out across the larger scale of the book. And often it doesn’t. That’s the truth of it. Often it doesn’t work out. You have to throw away a lot of material that reads well.
JM: Let’s talk about the title. The “surrendered” could be people who have surrendered to something. Or it could be a thing or an idea that has been surrendered. It could also be a person who has been surrendered. All of those things come into play. How would you apply it to the characters we’ve been talking about?
CRL: I would say that they’ve been surrendered by historical circumstance, by family circumstance, and by their own particular psyches. But once they’ve been surrendered by whatever -- war, family -- tt doesn’t end there for me. The book is not about simply being at the whim of fate. Because after fate is character. I would say that these folks are people who have surrendered to their weakest points. Surrendered to their own blindness. Surrendered to their own—in some cases—vanity. They all have. Sylvie is someone who has clearly surrendered to her darkest infirmities.
JM: At one point in the book, June -- at least we’re in the mind of June, I think -- she says to herself, “You could never love someone out of his nature, out of his fate.”
JM: And to echo a line from Native Speaker, your first book, Hector seems to have “fallen in love with his fate.”
JM: But then, quite poignantly in the scenes with Dora, he seems to in fact to undergo the experience of being loved out of his nature.
CRL: Out of his nature, yes.
JM: And out of this fate that he’s fallen in love with.
CRL: Yes. And when June says that, half of it is, of course, just her justification for her own failings. She’s speaking the truth in many ways. But it’s an easier truth for her. A convenient truth.
JM: Towards the very end of the book, the narrator -- the third-person narrator -- says of Hector, “Like everyone else, he was at the helm, whether he wished it or not.” There’s fate, as you say, and there’s character beyond fate.
CRL: Yes. My view of the story and these characters was I never wanted the reader to be able to say, “Oh, this is the reason why he or she’s this way.” Because that would be a silly book. That’s a book about PTSD. That can happen and does happen, but that’s not the interest of novels. The interest of novels is not just cause and result, but cause, result, and then the real constitution, or the truer constitution, that arises afterwards, is created or sometimes exposed. I would hate if someone said, “Oh, these people just went through a terrible time and that’s why they behave as they do.” I would rather have it that a reader said, “They went through a terrible time, and yet I don’t feel as if they could be any different.” That’s what I want, that’s what I think every novelist wants from his characters -- that they exist almost outside of their circumstance.
JM: That’s interesting.
CRL: That’s what life is. I hate when people say, “Please tell me the story of your life,” as if in real life there’s a narrative, and there’s a theme. That’s the biggest crap I’ve ever heard. Every story is by nature contrived. There are things that happen, but “being” is independent of everything, especially something like narrative. Ultimately independent.
JM: One’s life has an existence that’s separate from its description.
CRL: As I said, there can be a narrative, a described, contrived narrative. But existence is ineffable. And that’s how it should feel in fiction.
JM: You talked before about the post-modern angle of you first three books.
CRL: I think most readers don’t see them that way. They view them as immigrant stories. Some of the literature professors who have written about my work are focused more on the post-modern angles, but most readers I think aren’t seeing them that way. Which is always kind of interesting to me.
JM: Reading this book after those books, it’s apparent how different it is in the storytelling.
CRL: It’s funny that way. It makes you look at the other books differently.
JM: Yes, exactly. In the new book, you deal with these enormous events, and these three small lives in the throes of these historical and even cosmic forces, and the book is neither earnest, you know, in a tendentious way, nor is it ironic in any way. That’s extraordinarily rare in contemporary fiction, and it’s quite an achievement. One of the things about a book with an agile first-person narrator, or a book that’s really focused on language, or in which you find deployed the whole post-modern arsenal of distancing effects, is that artifice can go a long way to entertain, enlighten—all kinds of good things…
CRL: Absolutely. I’ve been entertained.
JM: … but it can’t deliver catharsis of any kind. What you’ve done in The Surrendered is on such a grand scale, I can see why you felt like you were jumping off a cliff at times. Because it has a combination of emotion and artistry that, as I said, you might find in a Verdi opera, but not in many contemporary novels.
CRL: I’m struck by your phrase, “It’s not ironic.” I think that was ultimately why it took me so long to get into the book. I had to unlearn all the irony that’s been built in to my reading and writing life. Most of what we read is ironic. On whatever level -- structurally, character-wise, lingually. I can see my first three books as ironic works. This book is different. I tried to sit to the side and have a slightly different engagement with the material. It’s only recently that I actually realized this! [LAUGHS]
JM: Does teaching nourish or sap the strength of your writing?
CRL: I always say the two activities are completely opposed. Writing is all about the I -- it’s me-me-me. You have to be willfully selfish and exist in your own world, and do those things that can put you in a place where you can imagine richly and deeply and smartly enough. On the other hand, at least for me, teaching is about trying to understand someone else’s consciousness, not just criticize their writing, but try to understand what the ideal form of that piece of writing is for that person and that story.
So they are completely different exercises, which I think helps, in a way. When I go into my writing workshop, obviously, my students want to know what I think about this or that. But really, I’m focused on them, and it’s nice that way -- and they are lovely kids, and smart, so it’s fun to work with them. But sometimes teaching is incredibly inconvenient. Sometimes I don’t want to go to class because I’m working on something that I need to stay inside of. That said, after class I am always happy that I have been in class, because I enjoy the discussion and I enjoy the students. In a way, if there’s one inspiring aspect, it’s the students’ enthusiasm, their freshness, their bravery, which I remember myself having at their age. Their excitement. That’s always the same, even with students who don’t write particularly well. You sit back and you think, “Wow, how great is that?” But sometimes it’s highly, highly inconvenient. The timing sometimes isn’t right.
JM: One more question, if I may. About your reading. You mentioned DeLillo. I’m wondering what other contemporary writers speak to you particularly, and also if, in writing The Surrendered, you found yourself reading 19th-century novels.
CRL: Actually, I was doing a lot of reading of the work of my friend, the late Robert Fagles. For the few years before his death, he was working on his translation of the Aeneid, and he lived in Princeton. We became very good friends, and we would have lunch regularly.
JM: He was a wonderful man. I went to Princeton myself, and the most memorable class I had while I was there was with him, on Aeschylus’s Oresteia. He had just published his translation of it. I don’t remember college with a great deal of affection, but I would pay a lot to have that seminar with him again.
CRL: Absolutely. My class with him was that we would have lunch at the Faculty Club once a month or so, and he would tell great stories about poets, and then talk about the work he was doing. So I was one of the lucky people who got to see the drafts of his translation of the Aeneid. I hadn’t read his Iliad and Odyssey. In school I’d read the Lattimore, I think. So I was reading a lot of Fagles at the time. I think that helped me a lot.
JM: I never would have made that connection, but now that you say it, I can see it. Have you read his Oresteia?
JM: Oh. You must. One of the greatest reading experiences of my life.
CRL: I will. The way he would talk about those epics really helped me think about the characters in a different way. He took such a long view of things, particularly of the immense forces that we’ve been talking about, and he had very clear opinions. He was very anti-war. But the ways in which he would always return to the fundamental humanity of those characters, regardless of who they were -- Achilles or Agamemnon or Patroclus or Hector, impressed me. He seemed to always talk about the humanness of them all. That’s what I think enraptured him. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at.
JM: I’m delighted that our conversation took this turn. You were very fortunate to know him so well.
CRL: It was a great friendship, and I loved the man. I miss him dearly.
JM: What’s next? Have you begun another novel?
CRL: I have. I’m writing an immigrant novel, but a different kind of immigrant novel, I hope. It’s about a Chinese immigrant in contemporary times. But it’s not the classic immigrant story of a greenhorn who comes over, a naïf who is at the behest of the society. It’s a different kind of immigrant story, where the immigrant is in fact the one who is knowing and “at the helm.” I thought it would be an interesting way to retell an immigrant story, and maybe to make it a global story: this is a character who has expertise and skill and knowledge that the natives don’t have, a different sense of possibility. I haven’t really figured out whether this is an ironic or un-ironic work! [LAUGHS] It certainly suggests to me that it should be an ironic book. But part of me also (and maybe it’s having written The Surrendered) is interested in a wider canvas, too.
-February 4, 2010
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very good novel that kept me interested the whole way through: The three main characters (Hector, a ruined shell of a man who buries himself in booze and barroom brawling; Sylvie, the missionary who on the outside appears naive and idealistic yet actually carries a much deeper burden; and June, a Korean woman who is dying of cancer and desperately seeking her estranged son before she dies) are riveting in their own unique fashions, and each of them has been ruined by events from their personal pasts... bringing such ruined people together blends the perfect recipe for tragedy. The story jumps back and forth in time between the Korean war and the mid 80's- which for me is where the flaws come into play. 3/4 of the book are spent in the "past" (primarily an orphanage in post-war Korea), which leaves too little spent on the current. The main crux of the story is of a woman's final days trying to right all the wrongs in her life by reconciling with those whose lives she help destroy. The problem is that too little of the story deals with the present, and by the end I felt there was a bit of "lopsidedness" to the flashbacks of the story. However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The prose are very good, and many passages are downright poetic. I felt the characters were very well constructed and almost came alive off the pages- they were each complex in their own ways, and frequently diid unlikeable things (yet I still liked them, which is hard thing for a write to achieve) Novels this long often suffer from "sagging" too much in the middle, but this book never sags. I was engrossed the entire way through this incredibly depressing journey. This is not a "happy" read by any stretch, and has scenes of violence that may be too raw for some people- particularly events that occur to June in the first chapter and Sylvie's family in later chapters. Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who doesn't mind a very depressing, very violent journey between three people who have surrendered any hope of redemption.
In The Surrendered Chang Rae Lee does what he does best: write about displaced people trying to find a way to live in their own skins while wondering if it's actually worth figuring out. Like in his other novels, the characters are withdrawn and uncommunicative, but the creator's affection for his characters comes through and you find yourself hoping (although not without pessimism) they find some peace and contentment.
After winning an uncorrected proof copy of this book I didn't immediately start it since it is fairly large (467 pages) but I should have picked it up immediately! Once I started reading I couldn't put it down. A mesmerizing story that will stay with you a long time and you keep thinking about the characters weeks afterward. This book is a 'keeper' so will buy the book as soon as it comes out for my personal library and read it again as this is one of the best books I have read in a long time.
This book had me crying by the end of the first chapter, and a few times more by the time I finished. It's about three people who are brought together in war torn Korea. One is a Korean girl named June who loses her entire family in the war and ends up in an orphanage. The second is Hector, a self punishing solider from America who blames himself for his father's death. The third is Sylvie, the wife of a missionary who goes to run the orphanage in Korea with her husband, but ends up with a tragic fate like her parents. Both June and Hector meet Sylvie at the orphanage and vie for Sylvie's affections. All of these characters are damaged in their own way and each have a heartbreaking tale to tell. June's story is the main artery of the book. Hers is a story of survival and how that survival hardened her against the people she loved, leaving her with regrets later in life. Her strength to overcome and will to live is astounding when compared to Hector and Sylvie who have surrendered to life and have given up.
What a mournful book. I've read Chang Rae Lee's "A Gesture Life", an excellent book. But "The Surrendered" doesn't have a happy moment. The writing is beautiful. CRL is a master of the evocative description. If it was the author's intention to prove that war destroys everyone who comes in contact with it, this book is a magnificent success. It's too long by far, but I kept reading in hopes that the sun would come out---unfortunately it's one endless rain of sadness. A good book has to have at least one character to root for, someone to care about. The characters in "The Surrendered" are beyond repair, utterly hopeless, and for me at least this flaw made it an unsatisfying read. It's not that I insist on a candy-cane world---It's that one of the requirements of good literature is to create characters the reader can identify with.
Deeply moving, unusually insight on the influences and nuances of life. Multiple viewpoints move the reader through experiences that cross cultures, ages and time. Bittersweet and memorable.
"The Surrendered", is the first of Chang-Rae Lee's novels that I have read. I loved this book. Finding words adequate enough to express my thoughts is difficult. The writing is beautiful and evocative even with the harsh subject matter. Post-war Korea is the main setting of the story and with any novel set during wartime, it plays havoc with our emotions. June - the young orphan, Sylvie - the missionary's tragic wife and Hector - the American GI are all battling personal wars of their own but it is no less heart-wrenching as the reader battles alongside them. Yet despite all that these characters have experienced, they still managed to love fiercely. And to me that is the message this story gives, that no matter what trials we are dealt in life, there is still love.