If you are looking for a big, engrossing read that takes you into a little-known world, then I offer you Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. It tells a story about the Korean diaspora in Japan over a period of 80 years, and was my reading group’s pick for August. There wasn’t a bored person in the room.
Interestingly though, several in the group had no idea what Pachinko was, so in case that’s the same for you, let’s get that out of the way first. It’s a sort of pinball-arcade game that is hugely popular in Japan. It’s a gambling game – a bit like our poker or slot machines – except that gambling is illegal in Japan so there is a complicated system of winning “prizes” which can be sold at a separate business for money! Pachinko parlours, which are highly visible in the entertainment districts of big cities, are dominated by Koreans – that is, their management and/or ownership is – which is where the title for Min Jin Lee’s book comes in.
Lee starts her novel in a small fishing village, Yeongdo in Busan, on the South Korean peninsula. It’s 1910, and a match is being made between Hoonie the cleft-palated, club-footed only son of a fisherman and his wife, and Yangjin, the 15-year-old daughter of a struggling family. A recipe for disaster you might expect, given the way historical sagas often go, except that Hoonie is a decent, loving man and Yangjin a hardworking, appreciative and loving young woman. They produce one daughter, Sunja, and it is her story – together with that of her family and friends – which forms the basis of Lee’s novel, until it closes in 1989.
The date 1910 was specifically chosen for the start of her novel because this is the year Japan annexed Korea, changing Koreans’ lives forever. With Koreans effectively belonging to Japan, many made the physical move there, believing their economic chances would be better, but most ended up in ghettos, living in poverty, and with minimal rights. Being Korean was, essentially, a passport to a second-class life, but they survived and this book chronicles their lives and spirit.
The first thing to say about Pachinko is that it’s a ripping read, covering four generations juggling life in a hostile land. We quickly become engaged in the lives of Sunja and her husband Isak as they move to Japan to live with his brother, Yoseb, and sister-in-law Kyunghee. Two children come, Isak is arrested (for preaching Christianity), and Sunja and Kyunghee join other Korean women selling kimchi and candy in an open market to help the family survive. Lee tells her story in straightforward, matter-of-fact language, with very few descriptive flourishes, which keeps the narrative moving without holding the reader up with extensive scene-setting. This description of Sunja’s second son, Mozasu, is a perfect example of Lee’s clear no-nonsense writing:
Mozasu had grown noticeably more attractive. He had his father’s purposeful gaze and welcoming smile. He liked to laugh, and this was one of the reasons why Goro liked the boy so much. Mozasu was enthusiastic, not prone to moodiness.
The rhythm is almost staccato at times, but never stilted. On occasion though, Lee will break out with something that is more evocative, and it can leave you breathless, such as this description of yakuza Hansu’s money-collector, Kim:
Hansu preferred Kim to do the collection because Kim was effective and unfailingly polite; he was the clean wrapper for a filthy deed.
The other interesting thing about Lee’s writing is that most of the big emotional events – marriages, births, and particularly deaths of which there are some awfully tragic ones – happen off-camera, and are reported to us in the same tone as the rest of the story. This is not the sort of storytelling you usually find in big family sagas, which love to squeeze out every emotional drop they can. I’d say this is because Lee’s goal is not to engage her readers in those sorts of emotions but to demonstrate the resilience and gutsiness of the people …
…. Because Koreans in Japan have had to be gutsy to survive in the face of being ostracised as aliens, of being treated as illiterate and filthy people, of being prevented from accessing higher level jobs. We, like the Koreans, are never allowed to forget their lack of status and, as a result, their reduced choices and opportunities.
It’s not surprising then that one of the themes is parents wanting education for their children, seeing that as a passport for a better future. Sunja’s son Noa wants to go to university, and later Noa’s brother Mozasu, himself not keen on schooling, sees education as a path out, preferably to America, for his son, Solomon. It’s not easy though. Korean children are bullied and ostracised at school, and are not encouraged to go to university. Only the dedicated make it through. The rest – like Mozasu – have to find work, which Mozasu does, luckily, albeit in a Pachinko Parlour. This, to his brother Noa’s disgust, becomes his career, but he becomes a wealthy man. Wealthy perhaps, but still Korean! He says to his friend Haruki:
In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.
And this brings me to my next theme, that of home. Lee provides three epigraphs in the novel, one for each of its parts, and the first one comes from Dickens: “Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration”. It’s clear throughout the novel that our Koreans in Japan are homeless – reviled in Japan, they also no longer belong in Korea, particularly the succeeding generations that were born in Japan. As our omniscient narrator says at one point:
There was always talk of Koreans going back home, but in a way, all of them had lost the home in their minds for good.
And so, in this book, characters need to find their own sense of “home” which is, in most cases, family. It is in this context – and I think I can say this without spoiling anything – that we might understand Solomon’s decision at the end and Noa’s tragedy.
The third theme is perhaps the most obvious one, as it relates to the title, which clearly has metaphorical as well as literal readings. I’ll let Mozasu explain it:
Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.
However, here’s the thing. This is such a big, baggy monster that every reader is going to come up with different themes, different emphases. Lee herself, in an interview included with my edition, talks about her themes as “forgiveness, loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, and faith”. And, of course, all those are there too!
So, to sum up, Pachinko is a wonderful read about an engaging cast of characters. It provides a broad historical sweep of a region many of us could know more about, and it exposes the situation faced for a century or more by alien Koreans in Japan. It is also a book about human beings, one that never quite plays to type, that doesn’t opt for the easy marks. Instead, it is suffused with a clear-eyed humanity which encompasses the best and worst in people, and lets the reader make his or her own assessment. As I said, a thoroughly engrossing read.
Min Jin Lee
Head of Zeus, 2017
ISBN: 9781786691347 (e-Book)