The setting is a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, a bleak, harsh place, cold and violent. The time is the 1940s, with war raging. The prisoners are North Koreans, starved, beaten, and tortured. The alarm bell rings out, Watanabe, a very young prison guard, joins the jostling prisoners to discover the crucified body, dripping blood, of Sugiyama, the most brutal guard.
Watanabe is given the task of finding out who killed Sugiyama, and you might think that would not be difficult in a secure environment. No footmarks are found in the fresh snow. However, it is much more complex. Watanabe is also given the job of censoring all mail. This made more arduous by the fact all prisoners must write only in Japanese.
There is one prisoner, Choi, who acts as letter-writer. He is an interesting character, who keeps trying to escape, and who has a habit of stirring up riots. He is arrested for the murder, but the investigation leads to Yun Dong-ju, a Korean poet, who seems to have struck up a relationship with Sugiyama.
A great deal of the story is now taken up with deep poetical, psychological, even metaphysical discussions between prisoners and guard, and it gradually becomes apparent that Yun had a profound effect on Sugiyama. Maybe all that violence was hiding something in Sugiyama’s character.
Meanwhile secret tunnels are being dug, not reported by Watanabe: a musical doctor from the hospital wing is has started up a choir and is arranging a prestigious concert to be attended by the big-wigs - you might think "never a dull moment", but that would trivialise a very seriously thoughtful book.
This is obviously not a bog-standard whodunnit, it is much more. Yes, we do find out whodunnit, but that is almost incidental.
Chi-Young Kim is the celebrated translator of the Man Asian Booker Prize-winning international bestseller Please Look After Mother