by Min Jin Lee
"History has failed us, but no matter."
- Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, (p.1)
Min Jin Lee's second novel is historical, centered on the saga of a Korean family which immigrates to Japan. While history, both of the family and the times in which they lived, is pervasive throughout the novel, this is also an intimate story of family relations and most importantly the element of chance in the lives of the characters. The importance of chance is epitomized by the titular game of chance, Pachinko, that plays an important role in the story.
Pachinko also is a novel that describes the struggle between two ethnicities, Japanese and South Korean, that are forced to co-exist because one country conquers the other. It starts off in Yeongdo, a South Korean fishing village. Here, the author introduces a poor fisherman, his wife, and their clever, disabled son, Hoonie. At some point, during Hoonie's adult life, Japan colonizes South Korea and life becomes more difficult for the natives. Despite the rise in the cost of living, the family of Hoonie and his parents still manages to make ends meet with their lodging business. Hoonie later marries Yangjin and they have a beautiful daughter without any deformities whom they name Sunja. When Hoonie later dies Yangjin is forced to take care of her daughter all by herself, managing to do so by continuing their successful lodging business.
The story follows Sunja, a Korean girl, through the vicissitudes of her life when she leaves Korea for Japan. Her family struggles to fit into Japanese society, because of the historical animosity between the two cultures. Koreans in Japan were viewed as second-class citizens, and they suffered discrimination. Sunja also personally struggles with her identity, because of the circumstances in which she left Korea at sixteen years of age. One way she preserves her Korean identity is by making and selling kimchee, the pickled cabbage condiment strongly associated with Korea. Kimchee lasts for a long time, providing a good metaphor for the struggle of someone trying to survive and keep their identity in a foreign land.
Throughout the story their lives are affected by random events. Sunja gets pregnant. The Second World War breaks out. Sunja’s sons become Pachinko parlor owners. All of these are chance occurrences without which the story would have been much different. The title of the book, Pachinko, is an indicator of just how important chance is to the story. The game of Pachinko involves watching a steel ball bounce around a pin-ball-like board as it falls through bumpers, holes, and traps before landing in point-scoring or prize-winning slots at the bottom. In the same way, Sunja’s life was influenced by forces outside her control. She made decisions in reaction to her circumstances, but the main events of her life seem like obstacles which she avoids or collides with at random.
The author uses a simple prose style, yet her prose is deceptive in that there are serious ideas that she explores through the history of the descendants of Hoonie. I found myself comparing the discrimination faced by Sunja and her sons with that experienced by many immigrants in America's history. All the while the force of historical events provided a profound backdrop for the family's story. Lee's novel was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction in 2017. It is a rewarding book to read and worthy of accolades it has received.