Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Pachinko is a very different novel from Min Jin Lee’s earlier Free Food (reviewed here). It is a historical novel covering nearly 100 years of the experiences of a Korean family, touching on the momentous events that shape their destinies as well as their everyday lives and relationships. The opening sequences of the novel draw a picture of a settled, rural fishing village in the early years of the 20th century. The annexation of Korea in 1910 turns this world upside down. The Japanese invasion determines the characters’ fortunes, then their subsequent move to Japan brings them up against hostility and exclusion. The Korean War and the post-war partition, emigration to the USA, and continuing prejudice in Japan also feature. The novel has a panoramic scale and a wide range of characters, though its focus remains largely at the level of individual experience, family travails and fraught personal relationships. In particular, the novel registers the terrible personal cost to all the characters of their long-standing marginalisation as members of the Korean community in Japan. They are outsiders, directly persecuted in wartime. The gentle and loving Christian pastor is imprisoned, tortured and sent home to die. Years later, his grandson is humiliated by being required to register as an alien every three years, despite having been born in Japan. The daily hardships and the struggle for survival are vividly shown and we come to understand the compromises that have to be made to survive in this world.

Strength and resilience mark the members of the family from the earliest generation. The first to appear is something of an outsider in his own community. Hoonie is the club-footed and cleft-lipped son of a fisherman but he marries a young wife and they eventually have a baby that lives beyond infancy. This daughter, Sunja, becomes involved with a glamorous outsider who seduces her and when she becomes pregnant offers her a role as his mistress, but she refuses this. A proposal of marriage by the young pastor and a move to his parish in Japan rescues her from stigma and absolute poverty. But world events conspire against their modest happiness and her life is marked by sacrifice, struggle and continuing shame. The story of Sunja’s oldest son, Noa, is emblematic of the larger tragedy. He is raised and educated in Japan, and, unable to live the double life of a Korean incomer, cuts himself off from the family. All the men struggle in the public world, whether by resisting or by adapting themselves to the place and identity that the Japanese mark out for them. And the women suffer, supporting their menfolk, sacrificing themselves. The relentlessness of their daily work at home and outside, as they try to find ways of making money, is graphically shown.

Even their later prosperity is hollow as by then their culture has been swamped and  replaced by an American imitation:

The furnishings resembled sets from American films – upholstered sofas, high wooden dining tables, crystal chandeliers and leather armchairs…. There were no old things in the house – no traces of anything from Korea or Japan.

It is as though persecution and immigration have stolen even the traditions which were so important to their identity. The younger son Mozasu becomes rich by running Pachinko parlours – for which he is despised by the Japanese. As his friend says, there is no escape:

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….. All those people who went back to the North are starving to death or scared shitless.

This novel is grim at times but it opens up a fascinating world that has been rarely written about in fiction. My only reservation is that towards the end, as it moves into more contemporary times (1989), it takes on some of the characteristics of Min Jin Lee’s first novel. Characters become increasingly defined and preoccupied by their sexual identity, preferences or needs, at the expense of other cultural details. But maybe that itself is an emblem of what we have become?

 

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Apollo: London, 2017). 9781786691378, 531pp., paperback.

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