The word “Pachinko”, in Korean, designates a sort of pinball machine or slot machine and it is hardly incidental if Min Jin Lee chose this word for the title of her 2017 novel. Pachinko is a story in which money, or lack of, occupies a central place; it is also a story about choices: characters defying Fate with bold actions, refusing to be this little ball that is thrown up and down and everywhere by a frantic player.
The story begins in the early XX° century, in a peaceful Korea. Sunja, a young girl, helps her mother at the boarding-house they own. She’s a hardworking girl with no dreams in her heart. When she meets Hansu, a rich and successful Korean businessman who courts her and eventually makes love to her, her life changes dramatically. Not that she accepts his offer to take care of her and the baby they have conceived. But to avoid the scandal of her pregnancy, she accepts the offer of Isak, a Christian priest on his way to Japan, to marry her and offer her a better life in Japan. Sunja leaves Korea with this man she barely knows and is introduced to a new family, a new country, a new language. The novel then follows the lives of Sunja and Isak’s children, Noa and Mozasu, and that of their children: in total, five generations of Korean immigrants in Japan are represented, and with them, Min Jin Lee recounts the history of XX° century Korea and Japan, from the first racial tensions, to the Second World War and its terrible consequences for Korea (as well as for Sunja’s family), to the still difficult integration of Koreans in Japan in the 1970s and the 1980s. Many characters come and go in the story, besides the focus on the main family, and Min Jin Lee always makes sure to let us know or imagine what they become. Their often heartbreaking destiny, shrouded in doubt and inspired by awful historical facts, leaves a lasting impression of sadness and regret.
Pachinko is characterized by a tender vein. Most of the characters are kind-hearted, nice, generous and caring, to the point that there’s a “too good to be true” feeling about some of the plot twists sometimes: when Sunja lands in Japan, you’d expect that adapting to a new family will be challenging but her sister-in-law actually is a sweetheart and Isak’s brother is all too happy to welcome them in their comfortable albeit humble home. But Min Jin Lee manages to counterbalance what turns out to be the strength of the novel with the sombre background of the narrative. Life in Japan is tough and grim, in the XX°, especially for Koreans, who are subjected to a systemic racism which is almost every bit as cruel and unfair as South African’s apartheid or the segregation in the USA. The war episodes are particularly painful: the Japanese government, in the 1930s, persecuted and imprisoned whoever did not respect the cult of the Emperor, who was worshipped as a God. Practicing another religion than Shinto was considered to be a political treason and many Christians and Buddhists were imprisoned and died in prison. Isak, being a Christian minister, does not escape these persecutions, which makes for dismal and distressing chapters.