The Surrendered

by Chang-rae Lee

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee X
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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BookBrowse Review

A powerful novel that follows three lives intersecting in the aftermath of the Korean War, by the author of Aloft and A Gesture Life

When I was about five years old, I saw on the front page of The New York Times a grainy black and white photo of sad, dirty, hopeless looking people. I asked my dad about it and he told me there was a war going on in a faraway country called Korea. I have been against war since that day. No matter how urbane he appears in his interviews, it is clear to me that Chang-rae Lee has written his antiwar manifesto in The Surrendered. With his most powerful prose yet, Lee shows us that war damages people far beyond any other kind of abuse life offers and that persons damaged by the losses, violence and displacement of war will go to great lengths to work out either retribution or salvation.

In recent years I have felt that the technical level of current photo-journalism, while it brings us instant images of war, has also inured us to its horrors because of the high-definition, cinematic quality which looks similar to the movies of Hollywood. The brilliance of this novel is how it lets us into the hearts, minds and bodies of the characters. There is no escape from the harsh realities of their lives. Indeed, despite the excellence of the writing and the compelling nature of the story telling, The Surrendered demands a reader who can stomach the most graphic descriptions of gruesome violence, extreme physical trauma, and deep psychic disturbance.

Some reviewers have pointed out redeeming aspects of the story such as the ability of the human spirit to survive, to create new lives after war. I did not see it that way. The three main characters, as Lee shows clearly, each brought their own life experiences to the Korean War. June survived because of an unrelenting drive to do so and even found a loving man for a while, but her trauma came back in the end in the form of stomach cancer. The lovely but damaged Sylvie always carried with her the dichotomy of wanting to show the mercy taught by her missionary parents while craving release through drugs and sex. Hector, the seemingly immortal character, is the only one to survive the story, but all he desires is death. Each of these characters surrenders in the end to war's final solution.

So why should anyone read The Surrendered? Isn't life hard enough with the economy? Aren't we already overwhelmed by threats of global warming, dangerous food additives and low test scores in our schools? Surely you don't have to. Certainly there are beautifully written novels that celebrate family, love, happiness and spirituality. But if I could, I would make this book required reading for politicians, diplomats, world leaders and arms dealers, though many of them would possibly not get the message. Chang-rae Lee has said that it took him four and a half years to write this story of the defining event in his family's life. After finishing it, I have been looking at people around me with newly curious eyes. How many of the people walking down the street on any given day are carrying the wounds of traumatic stress? I was taught more tolerance by reading this novel than almost anything else I have ever studied on the subject.

Reviewed by Judy Krueger

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

The Formation of The Red Cross

A Memory of Solferino, by Henry Dunant appears over and over throughout The Surrendered. Sylvie acquired the book from her parents and brought it with her to the orphanage in Korea. She is pictured reading it many times and June eventually steals it from Sylvie. It is the impetus for June's final pilgrimage. Though it is out of print, A Memory of Solferino can still be found through used booksellers and, at the time of writing, was available online here.

The Battle of Solferino was fought as part of the longer struggle for unification within the Italian peninsula during the nineteenth century. Before then, Italy as we now know it was divided between France, Austria, Spain and numerous small Italian principalities.

On June 24, 1859, the alliance of France and Sardinia under Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon I) met the Austrian army at the small village of Solferino in northern Italy. Fighting continued for fifteen hours until the Austrians retreated, leaving more than 40,000 killed or injured. Surrounding villages were overwhelmed with the walking wounded; the largest number went to Castiglione. The small medical service attached to the French and Sardinian forces was unable to cope.

At the same time, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was passing through Castiglione on business and was appalled at the suffering of the wounded. He had been involved with charitable organizations in his native Switzerland and worked with local women to help the wounded. He brought in supplies to wash dressings, food, water and clean clothes.

In 1862 Henry Dunant published an account of what he had seen, A Memory of Solferino. In it he proposed the creation of national relief societies of trained volunteers to provide neutral and impartial help to wounded soldiers in times of war.

The ultimate result of Henry Dunant's book was the formation of The Red Cross, whose exclusive humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance.

Reviewed by Judy Krueger

This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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