The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

26/07/10, TIME Magazine

The canvas on which Chang-Rae Lee paints his magisterial fourth novel, The Surrendered, is massive: it spans three continents, two wars, and half a century. (Or nearly 150 years and another battle if you take into account the bloody history of the setting of its concluding episode). Its unforgettable opening scene, on a war-ravaged Korean countryside in 1950, with disparate straggles of refugees escaping to the south, introduces us to one of the protagonists, the eleven-year-old June Han, who loses her last remaining family, a brother and a sister, both seven, in a train accident as the chapter unfolds. Much of this unrelentingly bleak novel is filled with epic setpieces such as these: earlier on in the chapter, June watches her mother and sister blown up by a plane dropping bombs; another character, the daughter of American missionaries, witnesses the killing of her parents in Manchuria in 1934; a Korean orphanage burns down; and, in perhaps some of the most harrowing pages I’ve ever read, a Korean boy is tortured by an American soldier, who blows a horn repeatedly into the boy’s ear, splitting his ear-drum. About suffering, both individual and collective, Lee is never less than eloquent, truthful and unsparing.

Thirty-six years after that opening, June, now afflicted by terminal bowel cancer, packs up her successful antiques business in New York and sets out on a journey to Italy to discover her son, Nicholas, who has disappeared from her life and subsists, it is intimated, on petty thieving. In this mission she enlists the help of Hector Brennan, a hard-drinking, brooding guy who works as a janitor in a Korean supermarket mall. Hector, it emerges, served in the war in Korea in 1951 – for him, this service is a way of salving the guilt he feels for being responsible for his father’s death – and stayed on in the country afterwards. He meets June, a teenager then, at the New Hope orphanage, where a kind Korean pastor gives him work as the institution’s handyman. He eventually brings June to the USA and marries her in order to give her an American passport. But, before that departure from Korea, a vital story, involving Sylvie Tanner, an American missionary’s wife (and a heroin addict), who attracts both Hector and June in intense and destructive capacities, has to be told. By the time Hector and June leave for the USA, their lives are bound by several accretions of devastation and tragedy. Now, three decades later, the tentacles of that damaged past reach out again to embrace June and Hector. It is characteristic of a novel about pitting the human spirit against vast historical forces, especially against the destructive, all-consuming force of war, that a crucial chapter should be set on the site of a bloody battle in 1859.

Recalling the best of Hemingway’s thematic concerns at times, The Surrendered is a brilliantly written meditation on the residue of the individual and the human left behind in the crucible of conflict. Its prose, a thing of stately yet precise beauty, often rises to the level of plangent poetry. Here is an example: ‘[Hector would] rather deal with the horror of a rotting body visibly shifting and radiating a sickening warmth from its hold of maggots than that clean red proxy of life.’ That ‘clean red proxy of life’ captures, in all its metaphorical accuracy, the mocking irony of a sign of life turning to a sign of the end of life, an easy transformation in the fields of war.

What detracts from this magnificent achievement, at times, is the overdone fatalism and sulky defeat of Hector, one of life’s ‘surrendered’ persons, biding his time for the inevitable with a resignation bordering on inertia. Weak, too, is the overdetermined and predictable triangle between June, Sylvie and Hector. And yet, it remains an uncompromising and moving novel, especially in its final scene, where June hands Hector a kind of redemption that completes, with poetic obliquity, the ruptured arc of their pasts.