Chang-rae Lee, 46, is one of our great American writers. He won the PEN/Hemingway award for his first novel, Native Speaker. His second novel A Gesture Life, is a masterpiece, centering on a Japanese immigrant in New York who represses his emotions so he can lead a decorous life. His third novel, Aloft, charts the life of 59-year-old Jerry Battle, a man happiest when flying a small plane who must come to terms with his unhappy, disintegrating family in the suburbs.
The Surrendered, published in 2010, is a very good, maybe even a great, novel about the Korean War. I read this excellent novel little by little over a period of a month, because there was so much to absorb and because so much of it is horrifying. It describes the impact of war not only on refugees and veterans, but on the next generation. And it is this heartbreaking look at the future curve of the outcome of war that is most terrifying, as Lee delineates the lives and losses of two emotionally crippled characters, June, a Korean refugee who became a successful antique dealer and single mother in New York, and Hector, a hard-drinking American veteran and drifter. The overspill of their brief liaison is Nicholas, a sociopathic son who becomes a ne’er-do-well criminal in the European antiques world.
Lee goes back and forth in time, interweaving the lives of June and Hector in the ’50s and 1986. The novel begins with June at age 11 in 1950 in Korea, as she travels on top of a train with her younger brother and sister, who are twins. Since the death of the rest of the family, she has desperately tried to take care of them. They march with other refugees on the road, trying to survive, trying to avoid violence, trying to find food, and sometimes manage to ride on trains.
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.”
The twins fall off the top of the train and die horrible deaths. June goes on. And Hector, an American soldier who takes care of picking up dead bodies and burying them during the war, ends up later working as a handyman in the orphanage where June lives.
[Just so you’ll know: Lee’s hero Hector, who is an enormous, strong, kind, but hopeless man, often used by others, grew up in a small town called Ilion. The name Ilion means Troy, and Hector was the greatest warrior of Troy in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. I don’t know if June is an allusion to any character–maybe in Korean literature? or a date in the Korean War?–but maybe some of you know…]
Lee concisely and perfectly depicts Hector’s character:
“He had been given his separation from the army for ‘a pattern of discreditable conduct’ that included charges of chronic fighting, trading in contraband, and assaulting an officer. The fighting he was certainly guilty of, but the other charges were debatable, the black-market dealing a case of his being an unwitting courier for a friend, and then the one of striking an officer outside a bar in Itaewon completely bogus…”
And at the orphanage, Hector and June both fall in love with Sylvie, a missionary’s wife who survived the war in China, rape, and torture, and who takes heroin, unbeknownst to her cold husband, Tanner. Hector has an affair with Sylvie, and June, desperately jealous, wants Sylvie to adopt her.
June and Hector marry briefly for convenience and then divorce. When June is dying of cancer, she wants to find their son, Nicholas, who took off for Europe years ago and has been in touch with her only when he needs money. She wants Hector to go with her and a private detective to Italy, because Nicholas has never known his father and she thinks that might help him. In June’s search for Hector, who is living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and working as a janitor because prevented from good jobs by debts to the Mob, she inadvertently causes another disaster. Wherever poor June goes, there are accidents, and this one is too much–a flaw in the novel.
How can you make peace with war? You cannot. June tries to find her son. Hector knows that nothing good can come of this search. And the simple life he longed for is destroyed.
Over and over the same patterns…
I felt really torn up reading this.