By Anita Felicelli
“History has failed us, but no matter.” So begins “Pachinko,” Min Jin Lee’s sweeping four-generation saga of a Korean family. The story starts shortly before Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 when a Korean fisherman and his wife decide to make extra money by taking in lodgers in the village of Yeong-do. This decision brings the couple a small degree of economic comfort as the rest of the country gets poorer.
The couple has only one surviving son, Hoonie. He has a cleft palate and a twisted foot, and they assume he will be unable to get married because of the belief that physical deformities persist over generations. However, a matchmaker intervenes. She’s trying to find a match for Yangjin, the fourth daughter of a tenant farmer who’s lost his lease under the colonial government. The farmer can’t offer a dowry, but Hoonie’s mother is excited about the previously inconceivable prospect of a grandson.
Tragically, Hoonie and Yangjin have three babies they lose to illness and disease. After Hoonie’s parents die, however, Yangjin gives birth to a daughter, Sunja. As an adult, Sunja starts a secret affair with Koh Hansu, a wealthy, mysterious businessman who rescues her from some Japanese bullies at the marketplace. The earthiness of the affair (and Sunja’s daily life in the boarding house) is striking: “While he was moving inside her, doing this thing that she had witnessed pigs and horses doing, she was stunned by how sharp and bright the pain was and was grateful that the ache subsided.”
The novel is mostly about Sunja’s family after they move to Japan. Koh Hansu continues to affect and influence what happens to the family long after his initial sexual encounters with Sunja. The fortunes of her sons intersect with his.
“Pachinko” gets its title from a mechanical gambling device and recreational arcade game in Japan. Korean immigrants own a sizable percentage of the pachinko industry, which has a link to yakuza, Japan’s crime syndicates. Lee’s novel points out this is because Japanese employers in other industries often won’t hire them or terminate them for flimsy reasons. One mother thinks of the industry: “It was bad enough that her daughter worked in pachinko, but now, she had married a man who worked in the sordid business, cementing her caste in life.”
Like Lee’s debut novel, “Free Food for Millionaires,” “Pachinko” is interested in privilege, money and sex. “Free Food for Millionaires” chronicles the lives of several Korean American families in New York City. It especially focuses on how chance and folly shape the fortunes of Casey, a Korean American shopaholic. Just after she graduates from Princeton, she talks back to her physically abusive father, who throws her out of the house. He grew up in poverty in Korea and never lets his daughters forget it.
“Pachinko,” too, is concerned with the impact of chance and folly on the lives of poor or working-class immigrants. Like “Free Food for Millionaires,” it bears the influence of 19th century masters, whisking in and out of viewpoints, and (as if to underscore the influence) a main character finds respite in these classics. However, it deepens the themes of “Free Food for Millionaires” — it’s as if the author took Casey’s father and imagined in detail the impoverished and harrowing conditions that produced his rigid outlook.
“Pachinko” is uninterested in the mores of the rich, looking instead at the survival of the lower class. It is an extraordinary epic, both sturdily constructed and beautiful. Lee’s characters are tough, materialistic and determined not just to follow their ambitions despite challenging historical circumstances, but also to make a true home.
Lee never explicitly calls attention to parallels between the experiences of immigrants in Japan and immigrants in America. However, as an American reader, it is hard not to be struck by the similarities between anti-immigration sentiment and bigotry, no matter in what country they exist and no matter what image a country might project about its tolerance to the rest of the world.
Pachinko dramatizes the struggle to secure a place in an economy that is stacked against you and what that does to immigrant parents and their children. Although Lee is not interested in violent crime, preferring a stylistic register here closer to that of “War and Peace,” the subtler struggles of her characters echo some of the dynamics of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.”
Min Jin Lee captures something universal here with notable grace and exquisite craft. There’s a flintiness to the narration, but readers who appreciate British and Russian masters of times past will love this approach. As we struggle now against the indifferent vicissitudes of history, this novel is a timely reminder that many before us have managed to survive, if imperfectly, in a world hostile to them.
Anita Felicelli’s writing has appeared in the Rumpus, Salon and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Email: email@example.com.