Colonialism, immigration, racism — in America these things often feel like western stories. But people are people, so why can’t these issues exist everywhere?
Japan exerted colonial rule over Korea beginning in 1910, ending with the conclusion of World War II in 1945. As with the world-wide legacy of colonialism, it wasn’t a particularly great experience for the occupied country. Beginning in 1910 and ending in 1989, Min Jin Lee’s family saga, Pachinko, tells a fictional tale of a Korean family struggling against these times, against colonialism, poverty, war, religious and racial intolerance, all while learning how to forge an identity amidst the maelstrom.
Sunja is the daughter of Yangjin, who operates a boarding house in a small coastal town in Korea. Sunja’s father dies when she is young, leaving her and her mother fend for themselves. The do the best they can as the world around them seems to get poorer and poorer. When Sunja becomes pregnant by a married man, she thinks her life is over, as no one else will want her. But then she meets a kind, Korean, Christian minister on his way to Japan, who offers to marry her and raise her child as his own. Her decision to accept and travel to Japan sets her family on a journey through the heart of what it means to be an immigrant.
I haven’t read a story like Pachinko in a long time. The author is fascinated by every aspect of the Korean family she has created, as well as the often oppressive Japanese who surround them. This leads the author to use an omniscient point of view, bouncing around from character to character on almost every page. It could be a mess (and I’ve read some messy ones), but Min Jin Lee strikes the right note almost every time, moving between characters when necessary, but never straying from the focus of each chapter, of each paragraph.
This does occasionally lead to some side-scenes that don’t really go anywhere, such as a Japanese couple loosely tied to Sunja’s family that are experiencing marital problems. But somehow the side-stories are still interesting. I think the author wanted to open the reader to every aspect of the Korean experience in Japan, not only the Koreans themselves, but the Japanese as well.
As a family saga, there are constantly new characters coming in, children are born, new relationships are forged, and events such as World War II throw the family into new territories. The author paints each new character with singular brush strokes. Minor characters are well-rounded; occasional mysteries arise, such as who the father of Sunja’s child really is (perhaps what he is should be asked, not who). No one is superfluous, they all fill their own important aspect to the narrative, weaving a complex tapestry. I do think that the story works best when Sunja occupies the page. But she’s there from the start and it’s her family, so I hope I can be forgiven for latching on to her and wishing it was all about her.
There are other elements that tie the characters together, though. What permeates each person, each passage of life, is a tragic kind of fatalism. Much of the story revolves around either accepting one’s fate, or overcoming it. Sometimes a character gets stuck trying to do both. There will be loss and death, happiness deferred, and sacrifices made that can never be fully understood.
I think I’m taking more of a philosophical look at Pachinko instead of reviewing the work itself. I can’t help it; there is so much to take in here. Pachinko is a model of “the journey, not the destination.” It takes place in a world I’ve never been to, never experienced first-hand. I can’t say if this is a fair reflection of the people and time, but it feels like it is.
It’s thoughtful and provocative and well worth your time.