Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

20/05/17, New Statesman

The multigenerational family saga, spanning decades and often countries, has often been a way of looking at how individuals find themselves situated in history, how they battle it and find a modus vivendi and survive, sometimes even with a measure of triumph. The Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, marries the generational story with the immigrant narrative, but with a twist: instead of the now overexhausted story of people fetching up in the West to find a new life amidst the travails of assimilation, Lee looks at a different, and little-known, history of exile, that of Koreans in Japan in the twentieth century.

Lee’s novel begins in 1910, amongst poor people in the tiny islet of Yeongdo in Busan, in a Korea that has just been occupied by Japan. Hoonie, a good, simple, hardworking man but with an unfortunate cleft palate and twisted foot, at last finds a bride in Yangjin, a destitute farmer’s daughter. Their only child, a girl named Sunja, becomes pregnant, at the age of sixteen, after a brief romance with a charismatic and mysterious older man, Hansu, who, we will later discover, is a yakuza. Hansu is unable to marry her because he already has a wife and family in Japan. A kind young Christian pastor, Isak Baek, who is a lodger in Yangjin’s boarding house, offers to marry Sunja and give the child paternity, but he is bound for Osaka; Sunja, the protagonist, and the novel, will move to Japan. This first section, comprising just under one-fourth of the book, is the only segment that is set in Korea – its cast of Korean characters will either never be able to return home or will be born in foreign soil.

In Osaka, Isak and Sunja join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and Yoseb’s wife, Kyunghee, and the four of them live in what to all intents and purposes is a Korean slum ghetto called Ikaini. It is here that the outrageously discriminatory Japanese treatment of Korean immigrants begins to mark the narrative insistently, providing the moral-political heart of the book. Theirs is a hardscrabble life, struggling to make ends meet; Isak’s pay, as minister in the local church, is pitiful, and the family is almost entirely supported by Yoseb’s small income from his job as foreman and mechanic in a biscuit-making factory. Sunja’s first son, Noa, is born, then her second, with Isak – Mozasu. Isak is arrested on the flimsiest of charges in the general crackdown on Koreans after war breaks out and disappears for over two years. When he is released he is a man broken by torture and tuberculosis and dies shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, much against the wishes of Yoseb, the two women have set up a market stall, selling homemade kimchi and sweets and, later, cooking in a restaurant. The hardship worsens as the war progresses. Then Hansu reappears and arranges for the family to be moved to a farm in the country ahead of the Allied bombing of Japanese cities. It emerges that he has kept tabs on the family since he has a vital stake in it – Noa, his son.

After the war, the situation worsens: Yoseb is severely burned in an accident; the financial situation remains dismal yet Sunja refuses to accept any kind of help from Hansu, a powerful and wealthy man. Noa, taking after Isak, turns out to be a gentle, bookish, upright soul, while his brother, Mozasu, is more carefree, dashing, worldly. Through sheer dint of hard work, and overcoming all odds, Noa gets a place to study English Literature in the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo but the family cannot afford to send him there. Hansu steps in again and paves the way, despite Sunja’s deep misgivings and Yoseb’s fierce opposition. Mozasu, on the other hand, becomes an immensely successful manager and, later, owner of pachinko parlours, moving from Osaka to Yokohama. It is only a matter of time before Noa finds out who Hansu really is and when he does, the sense of shame and disgust that overcomes him has far-reaching consequences.

In a way, the self-loathing that is thrust upon Noa becomes the metaphor for the lives of the zainichi in Japan, looked down upon as less than human. Noa’s erasure of his Korean identity and transformation into Nobuo Ban is uneasy, at the best: ‘ … in no way did he see his current life as a rebirth. Noa carried the story of his life as a Korean like a dark, heavy rock within him. Not a day passed when he didn’t fear being discovered.’ It is a sentiment that recurs in the novel, echoed by several characters, with the coherence and heft of a motif. Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state, in an unstable equilibrium between erasure, problematic, even impossible, assimilation and, finally, an inchoate assertion. In Solomon, Mozasu’s son, who attends university in the USA but chooses to carry on his father’s pachinko business over working in an investment bank, the story of those in permanent exile is given not return but reclamation, or ownership of a broken past. Lee writes about every single character in her novel with immense sympathy, generosity and understanding; Sunja, in particular, the woman who holds the story together, is a wonderful creation. The immensely dignified survivors in this story are the two women at its core, Sunja and Kyunghee; history has bent but not broken them. They have endured.