Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was recommended to me over a year ago and has remained at the forefront of my reading mind thanks to regular reminders from Instagram and the book's general popularity. Finally, I decided to jump in and see if it warranted all the attention. Part of my interest in reading this book was because I know very little about Korea and have never read a Korean book before (this one is by a Korean-born American writer). I think this was a good book to choose to change that, and the fact that it is set in Japan was a bonus since I'm not very familiar with Japan either.
The story spans 80 years, starting in the south of Korea in 1910 and taking us through the Japanese occupation of Korea, then to Japan during and following World War II. We experience this journey through the eyes of five generations of a Korean family as they deal with poverty and discrimination in Japan. A review on Goodreads said they found it hard to follow the story as it sometimes jumps from one time and place to another quite abruptly. This is always a risk with multi-generational sagas as there are a lot of characters involved, but I actually felt that Lee did a good job in this regard. I found it easy to keep up with what had happened in the interim. There are other books in this genre that I have struggled with much more in terms of remembering who's who.
Naturally, in a book that covers two (and a half) countries, many characters and large sections of history, there are a lot of aspects to this book that could be discussed. However, I would like to focus on two that I found myself appreciating and thinking about the most: its historical context and questions of national/ethnic identity.
Given my ignorance of the region, I found the insight into Korea and Japan and their historical relationship enlightening. Lee was very successful in incorporating key historical moments into the story and highlighting how these events affected the lives of the most vulnerable. In fact, she mentioned in an interview at the back of the book that this was indeed one of her aims: "Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources. [...] I wanted to explore and better understand how common people live through these events." We learn about how the Japanese annexation of Korea led to poverty and starvation for many poorer Koreans, and the way the Japanese leadership used taxation to claim land from the richer population. We also witness the tense relationship between the Japanese and Korean immigrants in Japan, the way World War II affected Japan and its residents and even a little of the perceptions of the establishment of a Communist leadership in North Korea. Of course, this book is a novel, not a history book, so it's just a starting point and there are naturally many other perspectives on these events. All the same, I think it's particularly unusual to see the experience of Koreans living in Japan and the particular struggles that they faced in terms of survival, but also how it impacted ideas around identity in the following generations, which brings me to the next aspect of the book that jumped out at me.
I really appreciated the way Lee explored national or ethnic identity in this book. As the story passes from one generation to the next, we witness slight shifts in the way the characters perceive their own identities and those of their peers and relatives and the questions they have to ask themselves. For me, I think the most striking character in terms of his struggle with identity was probably one of the sons from the first Japanese-born generation, Noa. [If you don't want spoilers, move to the next paragraph] Growing up, he tries to be "the perfect Korean" by studying hard, staying away from trouble and ignoring the taunts and discrimination he faces from his Japanese classmates. He spends all of his childhood believing that if he is "good enough" he will be accepted and the discrimination will stop. When he realises eventually that in the eyes of racist systems and individuals, his Koreanness will always trump his "goodness", he decides to cut himself off from everything that makes him Korean and starts a new life pretending to be Japanese. Of course, this choice is one that causes him constant emotional suffering and he is never fully at peace again. Reading his story, I often found myself thinking of all the other places where people make the same choice as Noa and the ways that their pain can manifest itself, whether it's them acting out the racism that they once suffered themselves or erasing themselves until they are living meaningless lives. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is an American woman of Korean descent who moves to Japan and can't understand how the Koreans can accept such treatment. I think this is another interesting personality of which we can find many examples in the West (and I found myself asking myself if I am one of them), who has lived a comfortable and relatively secure life and struggles to appreciate the enormity of the emotional and structural barriers in place that keep people down (I do think there can be value in such people for bringing positive change, but that's a whole article in itself). In between these two characters, Lee presents a whole range of others, each with their own way of living with and resisting the dehumanisation that they face in their everyday lives. In terms of exploring the impact of oppressive occupation and colonialism on the colonised and the generations that follow, I think this book does an excellent job of showing us many different faces without passing judgement on any of them.
Lee covers many other themes in Pachinko, including concepts of beauty, the roles and experiences of women in times of struggle, religion and belief, the marital relationship in its many forms, death and choices made in hardship, and I think she covers them all admirably well. I'm now excited to read her earlier work, Free Food for Millionaires, and to find more novels based in Korea during that time and during the Korean War. If you have any recommendations, let me know!
Have you read Pachinko? What was your favourite aspect of this book? What questions did it raise for you?
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.