Pachinko does exactly what a good book should; it takes you somewhere else and shows you the world through different eyes. A story has to make normal to us what may seem strange, and to explain the world enough so the reader understands the observations without the narrator being too “telly”. This is hard to do across a cultural divide but in this epic story, Min Jin Lee gives us full immersion.
Pachinko tells the life of three generations of Koreans and their struggle, not only to survive, but to keep their cultural alive. It begins shortly after 1910, when the Japanese annexed Korea and suppressed the culture and language, burning books and dismantling history. There’s a boy from a fishing village with a club foot who has an arranged marriage to a sweet girl. Their only surviving child is a daughter, who grows up against this background of foreign intimidation. Her name is Sunja.
Sunja makes a bad choice in love by taking up with a married yakusa, but escapes into marriage to a missionary. They travel to his family’s home in Osaka in an attempt to lose the gangster (of course this is not possible), and join the Koreans who live impoverished and disenfranchised on the edge of Japanese society. The main thread of the story follows Sunja’s life, that of her sons, and the family business: Pachinko.
While there is degradation and heartbreak throughout the book, there are also lashings of love, compassion and dignity. It is a slice of life in terrible times and there is a truth, I think, in the way decency survives the odds and comes back day after day in unexpected ways.
Pachinko is a great title for this novel. I lived in Okinawa decades ago and the sound of the Pachinko parlours is still with me like white static. From so many street corners came the clatter of falling balls and the ting ting of the machines. My companions would compulsively turn in, following some Pavlovian addiction, and be lost for hours with their shiny machines, neither happily nor unhappily. They’d just get on with what was in front of them and l’d walk home alone.
The balls drop, the player hits the flippers and the game plays out against the background of incessant noise, with all the random missteps, fleeting good luck and choking bottlenecks of life. Pachinko.