"Over lunch, for thirty minutes a day, he reread Dickens, Trollope, or Goethe, and he remembered who he was inside."
Part way through Min Jin Lee's sprawling Pachinko one of her lead characters Noa escapes, during his lunch break, in to the literature of Dickens, Trollope and Goethe and you can't help but think that this was what Lee herself had in mind as she wrote this epic novel with its multi-generational perspective. Written in third person perspective Lee weaves a rich and complex narrative around a huge number of characters all seemingly bound together by a shared destiny.
Pachinko begins in 1910 and charts the history of the Korean peninsula from Japanese Imperialism through to the Second World War and the resulting Korean diaspora who found themselves in Japan. In Lee's history its not the politicians or ruling classes that have a voice but the working and immigrant classes whose stories are authentic and deeply personal.
Many of the strongest characters in the novel are women. Early on we meet Sunja whose relationship with Osakan trader Hansu defines the structure of the book. No doubt Sunja's life and struggles are drawn from research and oral histories and as an 'every women' the character is exceptionally well crafted. As readers we literally see inside her heart. "The people you loved, they were always there with you"; Sunja carries the lives and loses of her family around with her like precious cargo.
But for me its the men whose destiny defines this novel. Throughout the 20th Century Korean immigrants in Japan worked tirelessly to provide for their families against overt suspicion from the Japanese. Each Korean parent works hard to educate their children in order to avoid the traps they found themselves in but ultimately circumstances often lead them to the same ends, namely working in the Pachinko industry. Pachinko parlours, packed full of loud flashing gaming machines, are ubiquitous in Japanese cities large and small and occupy a loop hole in gambling laws. Though Pachinko plays a key economic role in Japan the industry is not considered a top flight profession and at times caught up in organised crime.
Lee effectively uses Pachinko as a metaphor for the ceiling that exists amongst immigrant groups whose family names and backgrounds ultimately limit and hinder their prosperity. Even towards the end of the novel when Sunja's grand-son is fulfilling a dream of studying in the US he finds himself unable to leave behind the shadow of the yakuza.
Packinko is a thought provoking novel that gives a voice to people so often ignored in history and literature. I was initially attracted to the book by its setting in South East Asia but it has left a far bigger impression on me, and that's down to the exceptional story telling of Min Jin Lee.
I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee published by Apollo, 496 pages.
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