Topic #11: Read a book set more than 5000 miles from your location
Book: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2017)
Let me begin by saying this: it is a rare thing for me to buy a brand-new book by an author whose work I have never read before barely a week after the book’s release. Doing so is taking a chance, and that chance does not always produce results. It seems quite appropriate in this case, however, as Pachinko is a story about taking risks and chances (as is the game it is named after) in the battle for survival and success.
The novel takes place over a span of seven decades, across four generations of a single Korean family. It opens in the second decade of the 20th century in Japanese-occupied Korea, and follows the family as they move to Japan, working tirelessly to carve out a life for themselves (spoiler alert: pachinko plays a part in their ability to do so later in the novel). Lee’s third-person narration glides gracefully across time and between different characters’s viewpoints. She delves into the thoughts of her protagonists of course, but also her minor characters, assembling a more complete picture than any single perspective could. She confronts difficult topics directly, outlining the complexity of these issues: nothing in life is black-and-white, and there is more than one angle from which to see things.
Being an immigrant myself, the immigrant narrative central to the story was what originally caught my attention. As expected, I encountered some themes that were familiar from my own life: the difficulty of learning a new language and functioning in a different society; the difficulty of building an entirely new life; and (at least for the younger generations) the struggle for finding one’s identity when belonging to two cultures -the culture of origin and the culture one lives in.
Yet these are only a few of the issues that the Baek family encounter throughout their journey. As Korean Christians living in Japan, they encounter discrimination on multiple levels. On one hand, Christianity is not looked upon favorably by the Japanese government. Thus, when a member of the family fails to perform a ritual worshiping the Emperor because it is against his faith, he ends up imprisoned, to be released only shortly before his death two years later. At the same time, Koreans are treated as second-class citizens. After Japan withdraws from Korea, the legal status of immigrants becomes a problem, even for those born in Japan; yet Lee makes it clear that this is not only a problem in Japan. As one of the protagonists remarks,”In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastard, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make, or how nice I am.”
While we observe the characters’ lives, we also get a glimpse of the region’s history. A sign of a good historical novel is that it humanizes rather than merely recounting the facts. Lee accomplishes this masterfully, as she demonstrates that national events can have far-reaching effects on the lives of her characters. The reader gets to experience the atomic bombings and their long-term health consequences through the eyes of a family member working in Nagasaki who has the misfortune of getting severely burned, leaving him in pain for the remainder of his life. As Japan surrenders and later withdraws from Korea, leaving it in turmoil, Lee notes: “At least here [in Japan], the Americans were still in charge, so the women were able to find sugar and wheat.” Lee presents a perspective of Korea and of the US occupation of Japan in the aftermath of the war that transcends mere dates, facts, and figures to illuminate the human experience.
When I picked up this book I knew little about the shared history between Korea and Japan, and even less about the Korean community in Japan. Initially this was daunting, yet Lee’s mastery of the craft allowed me to engage with this foreign world in a way that felt almost familiar. In the end, I learned a lot and enjoyed a heartfelt story with complex characters. This is my favorite book of the year so far. I heartily recommend it.