"Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee (2017)
"'You must swear that you'll be faithful to this man. If you're not, you'll bring far greater shame on your mother and your dead father than what you've already done. You must ask the Lord for forgiveness, child, and ask Him for faith and courage as you make your new home in Japan. Be perfect, child. Every Korean must be on his best behavior over there. They think so little of us already. You cannot give them any room to think worse of us. One bad Korean ruins it for thousands of others. And one bad Christian hurts tens of thousands of Christians everywhere, especially in a nation of unbelievers. Do you understand my meaning?'"
Min Jin Lee is a Korean-American author resident in New York. Prior to Pachinko she wrote one other novel, Free Food for Millionaires.
In Pachinko Sunja, daughter of an innkeeper in Busan, travels with her husband Isak to Osaka, where they spend the rest of their lives. From that point on Pachinko tells the story of Sunja's children and her children's children, two generations of Japan-born Koreans struggling to survive the privations and prejudices that inform pre- and postwar Japan.
At the center of the novel is the role Korean immigrants have played in Japanese society. In the early 1900s Korea was run as a Japanese colony, with Japanese landlords making life very difficult for Koreans living there. For this reason Sunja naturally thinks moving to Japan will make her life easier, but in Japan her family is forced to live in a ghetto, they are denied many opportunities due to either Japanese law or Japanese taboos, and their lives are beset by poverty.
One thing I liked about this book was how seamlessly the author switches between different perspectives. One minute she's telling the story from Sunja's point of view, the next minute she's switched to someone else's point of view without missing a beat. It's a trick that many authors struggle with, and the author of Pachinko seems to do it effortlessly.
Aside from this strength however, several of the characters populating this novel felt very incomplete. Sunja's sister-in-law, for instance, remains an enigma from beginning to end, as does Koh Hansu, Sunja's rich benefactor. Some of the characters, like Sunja's husband Isak, are described in vivid, consistent detail, while Haruki's older wife seems little more than a shadow, placed there to reveal her husband's hidden weakness.
As you might expect, this incompleteness with regard to certain characters leads to their doing uncharacteristic things. After a certain point you wonder why Sunja nurtures such an irrational hatred of a certain person, or how she magically overcomes this hatred just a chapter or two later. You wonder how a local detective could do something like that in a local park, where some of the spectators were certain to know who he was. You wonder at Sunja's son's fateful decision, and how he could have arrived at that decision if he'd been living apart from the source of his shame - and in the mist of a loving family - for decades. I suppose that to the author some of these things seemed very "Japanese," but no, I'm not buying it.
Pachinko also seems incomplete as a novel. I can't say whether it was the work of overzealous editors or the author's desire to be concise at the expense of compelling details, but the whole thing feels disjointed, as if there are chapters missing. Sunja's older son is the most glaring example of this, but the relationship between Sunja and Koh Hansu could have also been laid out better. As it is they seem to float in and out of each other's lives, and this relationship, which is at the center of the story the author is trying to tell, needed a bigger presence in the book. The lack of it, of course, leads to a rather lackluster conclusion.
Pachinko is an interesting book though, and it offers an interesting perspective on regional history. I came to it knowing almost nothing about Korea in the early 1900s, and the interactions between Sunja's family and Japanese society were definitely food for thought. I live in Taiwan, and the similarities between what various characters undergo in Pachinko and historical anecdotes from Taiwanese history made me think that the two countries have a lot more in common than people realize.
Is Pachinko a perfect book? Far from it. Yet it's entertaining despite its flaws, and for this reason I'd recommend it.
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