Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee made me cry on a plane, much to the horror of the little boy seated next to me. It’s a generational historical fiction that spans from 1910-80s and it follows four generations of a Korean family that immigrates to Japan.
“History has failed us, but no matter.”
I truly loved this book. It made me smile, and fall in love and gasp in horror. Even though it was over 500 pages it was not slow, I finished it in four days because I could not put it down. It was extremely well-written, and so touching. We meet suffering, patriotism, communism, family, suicide, religion, patriarchy, love and shame.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”.
The writing is beautiful, the story never gets boring. There wasn’t a single point during the book where I felt like I had enough or I was too bored/lazy/uninterested to pick it back up. This book breaks your heart over and over again and yet you forge on, find new people to love and try to mend and then break again. Just like life. Which is relevant because the title of the book – Pachinko, a Korean pinball game – is actually meant by the author to mean ‘life’, since she describes it as sort of a game of life. Very clever, Min Jin Lee. The game of Pachinko represented, specifically, the life for Koreans in Japan. They clung to the hope that they would have good fortune but, every morning small, imperceptible adjustments were made to the machines that made it harder and harder to win.
“Seeing him as only Korean – good or bad – was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human”.
The way politics weaved into the story line was brilliant. It’s a whole new take on the immigrant experience – we’re familiar with the whole BAME in a first world Western country narrative (The Good Immigrant, WINLTTWPAR, Americanah, and The Refugees to name a few) but Pachinko focuses on Korean immigrants and the difficulties they faced post-colonization by Japan. In fact, when we say ‘colonies’ we usually picture ‘white superpowers’, and unfortunately those who aren’t familiar with the history or region would lump together China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. The immigrant experience in this book – and in many others – overlaps with issues of poverty, race and identity. The characters mull over being without a country, without roots, always seen as a guest in the country you were born in and never being allowed to feel like they belong. Naturally, we see the idea of being caught between being a ‘good Korean’ or a ‘bad Korean’ – where, as usual, the good immigrant is the exception to the rule because the widely accepted image is of the ‘bad immigrant’. Koreans faced stereotypes of being lazy, criminal, dumb and more.
“‘Sometimes I’d like to see my home again,’ … ‘for people like us, home doesn’t exist'”
Through this fictional family, we learn the real life narratives that many people faced: the harsh choice between starving in Korea or starving in Japan, renewing the right to live in Japan as a Korean every few years, the racism, the imperative of changing your name from Korean to Japanese, the inability to practice a religion of your choosing. In addition to this, we had the hardships of war as World War 2 took place. Most of their hardships resulted from harsh and inescapable poverty. She injects the characters with a depressing understanding of their limits – they’re drowning in a poverty where they can’t hope, encased by boundaries with no room for any aspirations or dreams to aspire.
“People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants”.
Each character was developed and 3D. Even the nefarious ones had glimmers we could love. No-one was 100% perfect, and no one was 100% detestable. The worst character still had love, and still performed small acts of kindness.
“A God that did everything we thought was right and good wouldn’t be the creator of the universe. He would be our puppet. He wouldn’t be God. There’s more to everything than we can know”
Religion and faith are strong themes in this book. I love books that include characters with faith as kind and strong as Pastor Isak’s – regardless of which religion. I feel like so much of the literature these days don’t feature belief in God as a positive thing, but this book does. Part of this was the power of having someone who prays for you which is also an integral idea in Islam being kind and helpful leaves as many people with good impressions of you as possible, so that they pray for you or bless you, or raising your kids right so they pray for you for their entire lives. This part of faith is actually more about your connections to human beings rather than faith. It’s the power of having someone love you, believe in you and see good in you.
“A woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”
Min Jin Lee also slips in slight discussions on women, their role in society and their treatment. The feminist reader will notice how the suffering of women is a trope repeated every few pages and in a myriad of ways. A woman kept at home, a woman giving birth, a woman in the marketplace. At each step of her life a woman is faced with a new burden, a new way to suffer.
“We could not know why some suffered more than others; he said we should never hasten to judgement when others endured agony”.
With the discussion of women she also includes motherhood, parenthood and childhood. This is natural in a family-based generational saga, the way through the plot is through the cycle of life: youth, marriage, children, rinse and repeat. In most cases, ‘mother’ as an identity tends to take over for women. Or lack of the title ‘mother’ if she has not conceived. However, in addition to this, she includes the idea that men also need children – not just women. She introduces the idea of being a barren man. Pastor Isak says: “Every child should be wanted; the women and men in the Bible prayed patiently for children. To be barren was to be an outcast, isnt that right? If I do not mary and have children, I would be a kind of barren man”. It’s funny that Pastor Isak used Christianity as a basis for his theory because in Islam it is considered to be half a man’s entire spiritual requirement to get married. The pressure should be more on men to marry rather than the way societies pressure and snort at female spinsters. A man is not considered whole until he has created a family.
“Here we have a situation where a man does not know his own identity as an outsider”
Min Jin Lee did include an idea which I don’t hear often. How much is the experience of being an outsider based on being conscious of the fact thar you’re an outsider? Like Solomon before getting his ID card, or at work before he got fired, some outsiders can live without being aware of how excluded they are. Or, like Noa, will the awareness be internalized because of others. This is like in one of the African American novels I read where the protagonist didn’t know she was black till she saw a photograph of herself (I can’t remember which book this was!).
Anyway, this book is great, with many veins of gold ready to tap. So I’ll just leave you with some more glittering nuggets below:
- “For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor”
- “He would continue to suffer with love”
- “All these people – both the Japanese and the Koreans – are fucked because they keep thinking about the group. But here’s the truth: There’s no such thing as a benevolent leader”
- “You’ve had enough food and money, so you’ve started to think about ideas – that’s normal. Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much”
- “He would continue to suffer with love”
- “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge – it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you”
- “The penalties incurred for the mistakes you made had to be paid out in full to the members of your family”
- “In life, there was so much insult and injury, and she had no choice but to collect what was hers”
- “Men have choices women don’t”
- “Perhaps God is always talking to us, but we don’t know how to listen”
- “I’m not a good man, but I’m not a bad one either”
- “Parents hurt with their children”