Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko spans several decades, members of a family, and even countries and continents. It begins with Hoonie, a physically handicapped fisherman living in a Korean village. It then follows Sunja, Hoonie’s beloved daughter who becomes pregnant after an affair with an older Korean businessman who visits from Osaka. After a visiting pastor marries Sunja to save her from the shame of her out-of-wedlock-pregnancy and takes her to Osaka, the story sprawls through time and examines the life and burdens of not just Sunja, but her children and her childrens’ children, who are all impacted by their status as Koreans living in Japan through and after colonialism.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the circumstances of our own lives that we forget the circumstances of those outside our orbit. Until I read this book, I don’t even think that I could have told you that Japan had colonized Korean at one point in modern history. Furthermore, there was certainly nothing I could tell you about discrimination against Koreans by the Japanese people and government. But man, oh man. Some of the pathos and sentiments communicated by Min Jin Lee track so closely with those centering around the Black experience in America that it was almost uncanny.
Sometimes that’s all you need for a book to move you; the vast majority of this novel took place before I was born in places I’ve never been across the world, and yet, there were so many things with which I identified. Being an outsider in the land of your birth? Feeling pressured to operate in relation to a man, because that is were your “worth” (as seen by the world) lies? Falling for a FUCK boy who won’t leave you alone?!?!? Seriously, who wrote a book about my Korean self?
The aspect of being a Korean in Japan during this time period was so fascinating because it was a topic about which I previously knew nothing, but which felt so familiar. The oppression, the justifications, the other-ing, the desire to assimilate and prove wrong the preconceptions, the will to just live. Sunja’s entire family was profoundly affected over the span of generations by the tides of the society in which they lived, starting with its attitude towards unwed mothers and extending through to its attitude towards certain foreigners.
And the title. I had to look up “pachinko” on the internet, because I’d never heard of it and had no idea what it was. But the symbolism of this game, and the way that it corresponded with the state of being Korean in Japan, well, Lee definitely got it right there. This family’s course was steered by the simple decisions of the women in the novel, some of which were borderline acts of rebellion, but many borne from necessity. Some of the choices in this novel are false, because what other choice was there, really? But in the end, when Sunja’s youngest descendant chooses to be who he is, and chooses pachinko . . . that was special.
This book is odd because the writing is not “literary,” and there are very few embellishments such as metaphors, alliteration, or the other typical machinations of prose these days. But it moved you just because of what it was. One day, I kid you not, I actually missed my stop on the metro because I was so engrossed in the last several chapters of the novel. It’s not often that a book makes you more knowledgeable at the same time that it makes you more open, but this is it.