Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee: a family’s story enmeshed in a history of war and racism

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, Min Jin Lee

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.

Even though the novel focuses on each member of Sunja’s lineage, Sunja and Hansu are the two characters who give coherence to the whole story, up to its very end. Somehow, Hansu looks like the hand of Fate: because he is tremendously rich, he can bend reality as he pleases, and because he is sincerely infatuated with Sunja, he makes sure to protect her, their son and the rest of her family, as much as he can, especially during the war and after, when the family has to deal with the horrendous aftermath of the atomic bomb. [Minor spoilers from then on. Continue reading from the ✅] So, when you begin to understand that Hansu is the hidden architect of the always providential “chance encounters” that punctuate Sunja’s life, you think that this is a somewhat lazy narrative trick: it’s only on account of his money and connections that Hansu can protect his lover and son. But when his actions backfire, the novel takes on a new perspective: apparently money can’t buy everything, and some of the decisions that Hansu took with the best intentions in the world turn out to be the very incentive to a nightmarish outcome. And that is how, little by little, Min Jin Lee draws you into her novel. ✅ This sweeping family history leaves room for subtle character development throughout the chapters and one can only admire for example, the progressive maturation of Sunja, from a naive and ignorant young girl to a savvy mother and housewife, to a protective and wise grandmother; the same is true for the other characters in Sunja’s family, especially for her two sons whose evolution into adulthood is constantly surprising yet realistic. Surprisingly though, given his prominent role in the story, Hansu with his unfailing obsession with Sunja, appears to be the most static character. If the chronological storyline is rather classic and the writing rather flat and unoriginal, sometimes reading as bad translation from Korean, one gets attached to the characters when we discover that behind an apparent narrative flatness lies the insoluble question of how our choices impact our lives and that of others around us.

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