By Steven Williams
Last December, Min Jin Lee introduced her new novel in a YouTube video. In the video, Lee recalls a university lecture she heard when she was 19 about the Korean population in Japan. The lecturer discussed Japan’s colonization of Korea, and told of a Korean-Japanese family he knew whose son had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of their apartment building. After his death, his parents found his middle school yearbook. In the video, Lee, fighting back tears, lists the things his classmates had written in it: “Go back to where you belong;” “You smell like garlic;” “Die, die, die.” It’s a story that has stayed with Lee for almost three decades. It was the beginning of her desire to write a historical novel about Koreans in Japan.
Fans of Lee’s debut, Free Food for Millionaires, will recall a novel centered on Korean-Americans in working class Queens. But the author’s shift into historical fiction does not mean that Pachinko is a departure for Lee. Free Food fans will recognize in Pachinko Lee’s nimble 19th-century style omniscient narration, as adept at illuminating the lives of our central characters as it is those of their acquaintances and lovers (and even the occasional shop girl or bartender). Here, too, is a story of class aspiration, of living and sacrificing for the next generation. Finally, like Free Food, Pachinko is a novel about a community, a Middlemarch-inspired web of characters.
We begin in Busan, Korea at the turn of the century with the birth of Hoonie, who, a few years after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, marries Yangjin, with whom he fathers Sunja. As a teen, Sunja is seduced and impregnated by charismatic yakuza Koh Hansu, or as he’s known to most: Boss Koh. Hansu, Sunja learns, is married, and though he promises to always support Sunja and their child, he tells her her cannot leave his wife for reasons related to business. Enter Baek Isak, a profoundly kind minister who’s stopped at the family’s boarding house on his way to an appointment in Japan. Isak offers to marry her, bring her with him, and raise the child as his own. Sunja, not wanting to bring shame to herself and her family, accepts, and we’re off to Osaka.
But life in Japan is brutal for Koreans. Sunja and Isak move in with Isak’s brother Yoseb, and his wife, Kyunghee. Yoseb orders Isak — who he knows to be generous to a fault — not to give food or money to his new neighbors; to let it be known that you have the least bit extra is to invite robbery. Yoseb warns Isak: “We’re all hungry…Be extra careful around other Koreans. The bad ones know that the police won’t listen to our complaints.” The police are all Japanese. Judges, too. In Japan, Koreans face discrimination at every turn. How, Lee’s epic asks, does one survive in a society that considers you subhuman?
Well, there are few approaches. As the novel progress, Sunja gives birth to two sons: Noa, her child by Hansu — though, of course, that’s a secret — and Mozasu, her child with Isak. Noa excels in school, puts up with the other children calling him names, and is proud when teachers tell him that he is “a good Korean.” Mozasu on the other hand becomes a ferocious fighter, whooping anybody who disrespects him or his family. Noa dreams of becoming an educated man. But it’s Mozasu, ironically, who’s more like Hansu (who, by the way, we have not seen the last of), harboring no faith in the fairness of the system and choosing instead to work whatever angles he can: while still a child, Mozasu tells Noa: “I want to make a lot of money, then umma and Aunt Kyunghee wouldn’t have to work anymore.”
It’s these aspirations that lead Mozasu into pachinko, a game comparable to pinball (but played for money), and a business looked down upon by most. In pachinko, Mozasu sees a metaphor for life:
His Presbyterian minister father had believed in divine design, and Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed, which also made room for randomness and hope.
Mozasu is a success in the pachinko business, coming to manage, then own, several parlors. Decades pass. The family grows.
But are they at home in Japan? Is there such thing as home for the Korean-Japanese? As Mozasu puts it: “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.” In this novel, the question of home dovetails nicely with the theme of fatherhood. To what extent can Japan, a society that despises Koreans, ever be these characters’ home? To what extent is Noa, who wants only to be educated and virtuous like Isak, the man who raised him, still Hansu’s son? What does it mean to be connected to another person? To a nation? Lee offers us no simple answers.
But we don’t read novels for simple answers, do we? We read novels to get a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. Lee does that for us here, and she does it while maintaining a light touch. Lee is not an author interested in dazzling you with her prose or reinventing the novel form (Pachinko’s structure is most like that of 19th-century British novels), preferring instead to keep her story and characters front and center. But somehow, she’s there on every page, present but invisible. That YouTube video I mentioned? I didn’t see it until after I’d finished the book. But I didn’t need that video to tell me that this story is deeply important to Lee. I felt it in every line. And when I reached the end, I knew that, like Lee when she heard the lecture that would inspire this novel, I’d just heard a story that would stay with me for a long time.
STEVEN WILLIAMS holds an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University-Newark and teaches writing and literature at St. John’s University and Queensborough Community College. His work has appeared in The Lit Pub and The Common Online. He grew up on Long Island.