- What: Pachinko
- Who: Min Jin Lee
- Pages: 496, soft cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flame
Last week, I published a critique about the classic work/business book, which appears to be everywhere these days, including recs in way too many work emails. I know people seek these to learn, but the last book I read is a prime example of how literature can teach you things about the world that formal education never could. And from that comes the cultural awareness we need to better ourselves.
How many business books can do that?
Pachinko not only taught me about historical events that I’d never heard of, but it also illustrated how we are our own worst enemy: Humans all around the world can deeply hurt entire groups of people, and our most hurtful nature seeps out in the face of those who are different. It’s these struggles and how we overcome them that shape our cultures and relationships with others. If you’re wondering if a book can really illustrate all of that, I understand your skepticism. However, this novel, which had been on my list since it came out two years ago, really does have the power and pain to do it all.
Pachinko is an epic novel spanning four generations of a Korean family that has sacrificed and suffered as the politics among Japan, Korea, and China have dictated the destinies of so many families and individuals.
In the early 1930s, Sunja, a teenager who helps her widow mother run a boarding house in a small Korean fishing village, falls for an older wealthy man. Her naïveté and inexperience cannot register or understand his games, actions, and their consequences until they unravel her when she becomes pregnant. She breaks custom, though, and flees to Japan with a man willing and wanting to take her as his wife. Many Koreans have migrated here because of the uncertainty their homeland has faced since Japan invaded at the beginning of the century, but life in a new country is anything but easy.
The ramifications of her decision are told through the 1980s as the discrimination her people face and the hardships they experience because of it mold their lives in unimaginable ways. Later generations will grapple with independence and identity that have never seemed straight-forward or fair and are something that I, as an American, could never comprehend.
One reason this novel packs such a powerful punch is because it is the first novel written for English-speaking adults about the Japanese-Korean culture. So much of this book — including its main premise, the history leading up to it, and the effects that followed — were completely unknown to be beforehand. It saddens me that so many people’s hardship are unknown, especially when knowledge of it could promote better understanding and important conversations about relationships, race, and identity.
It’s easy to remain in our own circle of problems and fate and ignore what’s happening so far from home. But if we do imagine it, we gift ourselves with empathy that can change our lives and outlook.
“In this sprawling book, history itself is a character,” writes Krys Lee in her New York Times review. “Pachinko is about outsiders, minorities, and the politically disenfranchised. But it is so much more besides. Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was.”
This point embodies how our identities lack linearity. They are shaped by events and people that span many decades and centuries, and they live in a gray space that cannot be summarized, which makes our existence beautiful yet complicated. One of the characters, for example, finds out as an adult that his father is not actually the Korean immigrant who raised him. Rather, it’s a Japanese man who had an affair with a Korean woman and who lives a gangster life filled with money and power. Upon learning this, he can no longer identify as Korean, Japanese, or Korean-Japanese, and he knows no group will ever accept him. This blurred vision of himself is too much to cope with.
While the idea of identity — and how the author captures it — is complex, the book necessitates this complexity so that we can relate to the characters and fully grasp all of the pain and history they represent. At times, however, Pachinko introduces characters and scenes that too pointedly express these ideas and do little to move the plot. If anything, they unnecessarily lengthen the book. This point isn’t lost on Lee either.
“The numerous shifts are occasionally jolting, but what is gained is a compassionate, clear gaze at the chaotic landscape of life itself,” she writes.
If that’s the only negative I can recall in nearly 500 pages, then this author has given us a masterpiece. Not only can she write a beautiful story, but she says so much about history and large groups of people and cultures in the process. This novel takes place in a time when our world was becoming globalized. As I read it in 2019, I’m disappointed that so many of these themes are still prevalent but also hopeful that storytellers such as Min Jin Lee can teach us and bring us back to the brink of compassion.