By Alex Griffin
In his 1970 book Empire of Signs Roland Barthes said of pachinko, the Japanese cousin of pinball, that the player’s fate is set in motion and sealed by the first, and only, movement: after perching the ball up, you’re helpless, and watch your destiny spelled out before you. With each machine, the odds change every day at the whims of the manager.
With its insistence on constant chance-taking against overwhelming and unknown odds, this scattershot game is a neat metaphor for diaspora. And so it is with the Korean family in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a roiling immersive novel of generations coming to terms with their exile in Japan, caught between internal feelings of loss and the physical difficulty of exile.
Throughout this novel history is made. Or rather history happens. Where Seoul-born, New York-based Lee’s 2007 debut novel Free Food for Millionaires focused on a single life in Manhattan, Pachinko goes generations back to trace the Korean diaspora in Japan — the Zainichi — condemned to the margins of society. Lee was living in Tokyo when she wrote the novel.
“History had failed us, but no matter” are the opening words, and the successive separations in the novel work like a series of concussions: they are staggering and reverberate down the generations as intonations of doom.
We start in a small fishing village in North Korea in the early 20th century. A simple man with a cleft palate receives a wife in an arranged marriage. They run a boarding house. They have a daughter, Sunja, who is solid, stoic, but also fierce and full of life.
Sunja’s fate is set in train by Koh Hansu, a Korean yakuza with a double life who first saves her from the potential assault of Japanese boys, but then seduces her and creates the expectation of marriage. She dodges the disgrace of pregnancy by leaving for Japan with Isak, a young pastor who takes the child as his own.
Sunja is the patient heart of this novel, the metronome that measures the music of time. The beatific Isak walks in the light of the Lord, but his death is foretold. From there Sunja scrabbles for existence in the ruins of a wartime economy, eking out an existence for her two sons selling kimchi with her new sister-in-law, Kyunghee.
Those sons are where this novel cleaves, and there are shades of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the polarity between them. For the noble and studious older brother Noa, Hansu’s son, it is the high road or no road. For the younger Mozasu, Isak’s child, it’s climbing the rungs of the pachinko world, to hustle and scramble.
This is a Dickensian narrative stripped of verbal excess. There is an essential spareness to Lee’s prose: death doesn’t knock before it steals in and steals away, and the narrative climaxes have a breathtaking forthrightness, brisk as loss itself, with a harsh discord that mirrors the tenor of grief.
From this zoom-focus view of familial existence amid calamity, great things are heard only in whispers and factory gossip. The shadows of comfort women hover throughout. There are shadows, too, of nuclear bombs. Sunja learns early on that: “A woman’s life is endless work and suffering. It is better to expect it.”
Pachinko is such an elemental novel. It cuts hard at our feelings. Food is a constant theme, the empty bellies of wartime, the dire need to eat, the heat and reek of the streets. Humiliations abound: bullying, abuse (and worse), identity cards and the anaesthetic brutality of bureaucracy. Yet the characters keep playing the game of life undaunted, as people without power must, and people with great reserves of strength can.
Lee is a master of showing how when fate — or patience — can snap, and the bareness of its aftermath. The real moral question she wrestles with is the dichotomy honour and dishonour: when the world strips you of your very roots, how do you grow? The divergent fates of Sunja’s sons are piercing. Noa buries himself deep in imagining himself Japanese, in shedding every aspect of his dishonour, while Mozasu embraces what life he can, lowering his sights and pulling himself up. The upshot is thick with tragedy and compromise.
Far offstage, as North Korea becomes a hermit kingdom, those inevitable longings for home are never rendered simple or nostalgic. Those who go back are never heard from again. Those who move back and forth like the yakuza Kohsu are damaged by the burden and dislocation of bearing two cultures at once. There is escape, but never back into the world that was lost, the place where belonging was possible.
When Noa finds a new family, passing as Japanese, he feels that, “Though he valued his wife and children as a kind of second chance, in no way did he see his current life as a rebirth.”
In universalising a unique migrant experience into an essential and symbolic drama of persevering hurt, there is a huge ambition within this novel. Lee’s prose is cool and unobtrusive, every claim is made with weight and a depth of feeling.
The consequence is a vision less of despair than of a world where work and chance collide, where one kind of wit and savvy displaces another, where survival and coexistence is always the name of the game. “Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not,” Mozasu’s wife reflects. And there is an insistent sense of reality behind the music of frustration and hope, a quiet credible resonance, as Mozasu puts it, “Adapt. Wasn’t it as simple as that?”
Alex Griffin is a writer and critic.
By Min Jin Lee
Head of Zeus, 490pp, $32.99