‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee


2017, 485 p.

Back in the early 1970s, at the age of 18,  I went to Japan with a Rotary group.  It was a very wholesome tour, but I do recall seeing two things which perplexed me at the time, but I understand better now. They were both in the same building, as I recall: a largish building, similar to an RSL. There was a large, dimly lit bar, with drunken men in white shirts and ties, crooning along off-key to an instrumental soundtrack that I now recognize as karaoke. At the time- and indeed now over forty years later – I couldn’t work out why male office workers (and they were entirely male) would want to make a fool of themselves in this way.  On another floor was what I was told was a pachinko parlour, likewise windowless and dimly lit except for the carnival lights around the pachinko machines. I couldn’t really make sense of the machines, which seemed like a mixture of pokie and pinball machine.  But when I saw the title of this book, I knew exactly what  pachinko was.

I came to read the book solely on the say-so of Whispering Gums Sue’s reading group  who selected this book as one of their favourites for the year. When I put it on hold at the library late last year , I found that almost eighty people were ahead of me.  Three months later I picked it up, read the back blurbs and my heart sank.  “Oh no!” I thought as memories of Falling Leaves and Amy Tan sprang to mind, dreading another three-generation Asian family saga mired in the author’s own autobiography that ends up in America with a self-entitled middle-class, middle-aged woman alternately intrigued and repelled by the lives of her grandmother and mother.

But I need not have worried. In her acknowledgments at the back of the book, the author notes that the story originated in a lecture she heard about Koreans in Japan, where a boy bullied by his classmates in his year book, jumped from a building and died. Fascinated by the failure of Japanese-born Koreans to be recognized as Japanese, and the scant prospect of this changing in the future, she researched further and conducted interviews.  These people may be historical victims, she conceded, “but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that”.  I think that the origins of this book in historical situation, rather than genealogy, is what lifts it right out of the pack of Amy-Tam-clones.

The book is divided into three parts: ‘Gohyang/Hometown 1910-1933’, ‘Motherland 1939-1962’ and ‘Pachinko 1962-1989’. Within these parts, the narrative is told chronologically, with jumps of perhaps three or four years, shifting between Korea, which Sunja leaves permanently, and Nagano, Osaka, Yokohama and Tokyo in Japan where she raises her family.  The story starts in 1910, the year of Japan’s annexation of Korea, when Hoonie, a good man hampered by his cleft palate and club foot, marries a poor young rural girl, Yangjin.  They have a single surviving daughter, Sunja.  When Sunja falls pregnant to a married man, Hansu, her situation is relieved by another good man,  the Christian preacher Isak, who marries her and takes her to live with his childless brother Yoseb and sister-in-law Kyunhee in Japan.  Sunja’s first-born son, Noa, grows up believing that Isak is his father, while his real father, Hansu, by now a gangland leader, is an ever-present, watching presence.

The tumultuous events of the second half of the twentieth century (comfort women, Japan during WWII, the communists in North Korea, the US involvement in the Korean war, the American acceptance of Christianized South Koreans as immigrants) all occur off-stage. They are not unimportant, because they form the background to the family’s situation as ongoing outsiders, too frightened to return to the silence of North Korea, accruing wealth and remaining distrusted by the Japanese. The pachinko industry is mired in the Korean underworld, but it lures the family as the only means of progress when education – held up as the path of responsibility – has its limitations. The pachinko game stands as a metaphor for life, where the game is tweaked and manipulated, but it draws its players on for just one more play, in the hope that this time, there will be a win. Life, like a pachinko game, “looked fixed but … also left room for randomness and hope.”

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s long, and not for nothing does Lee cite Dickens in her epigram to Part 1 of the book (“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration”). The book evoked Dickens in its sweep and length, and I found it entirely engrossing, luxuriating in a whole Easter Sunday to sit and finish it in one big gulp.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-vent-ually)

Read because: Sue’s book group enjoyed it

My rating: 9/10

One response to “‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee

  1. Oh so glad you liked it too RJ… Great on so many levels. Two friends though, not in my reading group, we’re less than enthused. I may have enthused too much!

    Anyhow, thanks for the link.

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