The Innocent takes its title from the almost paradoxical reluctance to take human life of Major Lee, an army officer who is masterminding the overthrow of his own government. Major Lee’s respect for law, order, and human life pits him in an allegorical struggle with Colonel Min, the military leader of the coup to which the novel builds up. The conflict between the two officers dominates the story, which is narrated by Lee himself. Lee’s idealism is understandable for someone so obviously dedicated to his country, but his innocence often appears to be sheer naïveté in a military genius. Colonel Min is Lee’s antagonist, but Min is not a bad man; he is, in fact, an exceptionally good one, although he is at times given to an unconvincing Byronic brooding over the metaphysical conundrums of guilt, fate, and necessity.
Given these narrative weaknesses, The Innocent reads best, perhaps, as a version of the medieval psychomachia, a battle of allegorical abstractions. Major Lee thus becomes Colonel Min’s conscience, and the real conflict becomes the painful tug of opposed impulses in the psyche of a good man of whom history makes difficult demands for action. At crucial moments, Min acts to preserve Lee’s innocence by doing the dirty work himself—even sending Lee to Japan under virtual house arrest while the coup is being fought—and he seems to admire Lee’s pure-mindedness, even though he finds it ineffectual.
As for the long, drawn-out buildup to the coup itself (which finally comes to pass three-fourths of the way through this almost four-hundred-page work), it consists not so much of action scenes as of long conversations in which the major characters, who are not always sharply differentiated, explain to one another various events from the past or analyze the motives of their fellow officers. Despite the potential for boredom in this narrative procedure, the intricacy of the intrigues actually holds it all together. The coup itself is never described at first hand but is summarized in a lengthy news dispatch that effectively catches the tone and style of such reports.
The Innocent is told in retrospect by Major Lee, and it opens in 1953, shortly after the end of the Korean War, with a dialogue between Major Lee and Reverend Koh, an army chaplain and an old friend...
(The entire section is 955 words.)