From THE ILIAD to THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE to the Vietnam War novels of Tim O’Brien, Western literature is rich with accounts of warfare, some reveling in its heroism and glory and others exposing the grim toll it exacts from all those --- combatants and civilians --- who experience it. To that ample body of work add Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel, THE SURRENDERED, a devastating saga of three intersecting lives scarred irretrievably by the horrors of war.
Wending its way seamlessly from the Korean War backwards to Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and then ahead to America and Italy in the 1980s, Lee’s novel explores the lives of three characters: June Han, first encountered as an adolescent orphaned by the Korean War; Hector Brennan, an American soldier who saves June and guides her to a Korean orphanage; and Sylvie Tanner, the troubled wife of the minister responsible for the orphanage, where Hector, “a man not yet fixed into his own life,” works as a handyman after the war. The collision of these characters, each damaged in a different way by a wartime experience, sets up an ultimately disastrous confrontation.
A triptych of vivid set pieces unifies the novel. The first is the chapter that opens the story, the account (loosely based on an incident involving Lee’s father) of 11-year-old June’s flight in July 1950, along with her twin seven-year-old siblings, from the armies sweeping across the Korean Peninsula. The desperation and terror of the three children is recounted in grim and realistic detail: “The days on the road were like that. You could never anticipate what might happen next, the earth-shattering and the trivial interspersed with the cruelest irony. You could be saved by pure chance, or else ruined. That was the terror of it…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.”
The second tension-filled scene describes Hector’s encounter with a young, wounded and tortured Korean POW ultimately left to him for final disposition. Lee sensitively reveals the American's observation of the boy’s broad shoulders and how he “tried to focus on this, the suggestion that he was a grown man, a genuine soldier,” as he struggles to fend off the task he knows he must execute while enabling him to retain some semblance of moral self-regard.
The final decisive incident occurs at a Manchurian orphanage in 1934, where a teenage Sylvie and her missionary parents are interrogated by a ruthless Japanese officer who believes they’ve been sheltering a Communist agitator. The scenes of torture and murder inflicted there with casual disregard for the value of human life are almost unbearable to contemplate. Like the two complex episodes that precede it in the novel, Lee juxtaposes the barbarism war excites with glimpses of the redeeming qualities --- mercy, courage and the sheer will to survive --- that endure in the worst of its fury.
The echoes of these stories reverberate through the novel’s second half, most of which is consumed by the trek June, now dying of stomach cancer, makes in 1986 across Italy with Hector as her companion. Faced with her diagnosis, June has sold a successful New York City antiques business, while Hector toils as a custodian at a decrepit New Jersey mini-mall, seeking comfort nightly in a seedy bar and in the companionship of an equally lonely woman he meets there. Hector and June journey to find her son who has fled to Europe and now is enmeshed in criminal activity. Lee contrasts the placid beauty of the Italian countryside with June’s physical decay and almost superhuman determination to press on until she has found Nicholas and has made her way to the chapel at Solferino, the site of a bloody battle between French and Austrian forces in 1859, history she first encountered in a book Sylvie read obsessively in Korea. Lee intercuts scenes of life in the orphanage, as both June and Hector act out their intense attraction for Sylvie, swept up in emotions that will bring about tragedy for all of them.
Like the finest epic tales, THE SURRENDERED spools out a rich web of circumstance and incident in its nearly 500 pages. The novel’s pace is measured, almost painstakingly deliberate at times. Its scenes of violence are set against ones of exquisite compassion tempered with keen insight into the damaged souls of June, Hector and Sylvie. Though it’s anything but a didactic antiwar tract, it’s impossible to contemplate the shattered lives of Chang-rae Lee’s protagonists with any feeling other than one of profound sadness at the human devastation that is war's eternal legacy.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 23, 2011