By the time I finally got my hands on a copy of ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee, I had heard and read so many reviews and book club discussions that I was sure my reaction to it would be extreme: I would either enjoy it immensely or be severely disappointed. But Pachinko, mostly because of how smoothly the narrative flows, reminded me of ‘Good Earth’ by Pearl S Buck and that has forever been on my list of all-time favorite books.
Pachinko narrates the story of four generations of Korean immigrants between 1910 and today. The story is set first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century and then in Japan itself—Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama—from before the World War II to the late 1980s.
Pachinko is a Japanese version of pinball and for most ethnic Koreans living in Japan, pachinko parlors are the primary source of stable income and eventual wealth building, and the characters in the novel run pachinko parlors too. But the title serves a metaphorical purpose as well. Just like the first strike of the ball in a pachinko machine determines how it will move, the life of the characters in the novel too are determined at birth.
At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Hoonie, who is born with a cleft palate and a deformed foot, as he is getting married to Yangjin. This takes place in Yeongdo, a fishing village at the southern tip of Korea. The two have a happy life and go on to have a daughter—Sunja—who makes the central character of the story.
Then, Sunja is seduced by a yakuza (member of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan), Koh Hansu, and she gets pregnant. But Hansu can’t marry Sunja because he already has a wife back in Japan. So he offers to put her up in someplace nice and take care of her and his child but Sunja doesn’t want to be Hansu’s mistress.
Sometime later, a young missionary, Isak, who Sunja and Yangjin nurse back to life, asks for her hand in marriage after coming to know of her situation and, to save her family from disgrace, Sunja agrees. The two then immigrate to Isak’s brother’s house in a Korean neighborhood in Osaka, Japan, where the rest of the story unfolds.
Spanning nearly 100 years, the novel chronicles Sunja’s story and that of her children, Noa and Mozasu, and grandson, Solomon. Lee narrates the struggles of people who are treated as outsiders in a country they call home so skillfully that you can’t help but empathize with the pains of second-class citizens.
What I liked the most about Pachinko was how noble most of the characters were. Here, every person is as he/she should be ideally. Husbands love their wives, children respect their parents, and the young care for the ailing. It just feels right and you wish things were that way in real life. Even Koh Hansu, a morally dubious character so to say, spends the rest of his life looking out for Sunja and his son Noa, despite Sunja clearly not wanting him to do so.
However, it’s the women who shine in Lee’s story. Yangjin, Sunja, Kyunghee (Sunja’s sister-in-law) and Etsuko, Mozasu’s girlfriend after his wife’s death, are all women who have gone through a lot in life but, instead of being hardened by their circumstances, they do everything they can to better the lives of those around them.
Pachinko makes you weep and it makes you smile but the best part is that it gets you thinking—about life, love, and the little things that we take for granted every single day O