A Gesture Life
by Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead, 356 pp., $23.95
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 308 pp., $24.00
Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:
I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known, which was where Corporal Endo had taken K’s sister. But I wasn’t halfway there when I met them coming back, singly and together and in small groups. The men. It was the men. Twenty-five of them, thirty of them. I had to slow as they went past. Some were half-dressed, shirtless, trouserless, half-hopping to pull on boots. They were generally quiet. The quiet after a great celebration. They were flecked with blood, and muddy dirt, some more than others. One with his hands and forearms as if dipped in crimson. Another’s face smudged with it, the color strange in his hair. One was completely clean, only his boots soiled; he was vomiting as he walked. Shiboru carried his saber, wiping it lazily in the tall grass. His face was bleeding but he was unconcerned. He did not see me; none of them did. They could have been returning from a volleyball match, thoroughly enervated, sobered by near glory.
This is very fine, the animal quiet after the kill, the innocent, almost childlike air of the young men who have just had their sport, and the emotional paralysis of the observer, a Korean-Japanese soldier who had loved the girl. He would never allow himself to lose control of his feelings again, for love, like sex, or murder, was too dangerous. Hata—that is his name—was born a Korean, and adopted in Japan by Japanese parents. They were kind to him, gave him a chance to get on in life, and do them proud. He felt obliged to them, and to Japan, and to his superior officers, just as he would feel obliged later to America, where he ended up living, in a genteel little Westchester town named Bedley Run. “Doc” Hata (he ran a surgical instruments store), always polite, always obliging, wished to pass through life as much as possible without being noticed, like a man gliding under the surface of a suburban pool, “silent and unseen.”
Hata might easily have turned into a literary cliché, the polite, quietly inscrutable Oriental gentleman with a guilty wartime secret. He could have been no more than a name tag stuck onto an idea. Although Lee overdoes the literary metaphors a bit, reviving, for example, the image of Hata swimming in his pool, mimicking a kind of oblivion, long after the reader has got the point, his main character is fully alive, if that word applies to such a bloodless man. Alive but culturally at sea. He is Korean-Japanese-American, but does not really bear the characteristics of any of these—the mark, perhaps, of permanent dislocation.
The story begins in Bedley Run, the kind of well-mannered, plush, constipated place …