Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A family tale that sheds light on political and social developments in Japan that many westerners will not be aware of. Read it for political insight, or failing that read it for the simple pleasure of following the ups and downs of well drawn characters trying to make their own way in the world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: February 2017
Publisher: Appollo
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786691354

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I have often said that much of what I know of the world, its geography, history and politics, I have learned from reading story books. Because I learn this way, I do wonder about people who profess not to read fiction. I wonder how much of the truth of how the world really is passes them by as a result. In the light of 2016 in the UK and the USA, I wonder if this is a concern to be added to all of the others about cuts to arts funding and arts learning and the absolute necessity of having public libraries where children can start to choose for themselves at the earliest age, which stories to read, uncensored by the views of those who might think they know better.

I say all this because Pachinko is yet one more of those books that did not just make me think differently about what I thought I knew, but actually opened up to me a world that I knew nothing about: the world of the ethnic Korean in Japan.

It starts in the early 20th century in the backwaters of Korea: a Korea that has just been annexed by Japan. There a fisherman and his wife, taking in lodgers to make ends meet, rear a club-footed, cleft-lipped child to be more than his peers might expect. They raise him to be kind and gentle; they educate him in Japanese and Korean and numbers, that he might never be cheated, they love him enough to give him confidence but not so much as to spoil him.

Because in that place in those days marriages were arranged and imperfect men were a worry that they might pass on the deformity, Honie was not really expected to marry. But also in those days a beautiful daughter with no dowry had little in the way of expectations. And so a beautiful 15-year-old girl and the 28-year-old cripple met on their wedding day. They lived quietly and it would seem in relative contentment, except for the loss of child after unborn child… until the fourth. Sunja, the fourth child and the first girl, she will become the heart of this story. Sunja is the child growing into the mother and grandmother who anchors a novel that the author claims was some thirty years in the writing.

Those years were not wasted.

When Sunja falls pregnant by a married man, a yakuza, the good name and limited fortune of the family looks to be ruined. Two things change this – both of which will echo through the generations of the family in ways that might never have been imagined. A kind of salvation presents itself for Sunja in the form a travelling missionary, taking the words of the Book of Hosea to heart – he takes her to his heart as well. She follows him from her small Korean island to Japan with all its strange and hostile ways, where she must make a new life. The yakuza remains in the background however watching over her… her and his son… neither of whom he will leave be.

Through eight decades and four generations, the publishers blurb tells us Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival

Yes – and no.

There is something about Pachinko which means it doesn't warrant that epic label. It isn't an epic tale at all. It is a very simple one. It is one family doing what families do to survive. Reading it, I wondered what it was that was the 'short-fall' for me. Why could I not put it into that 'epic' pigeon-hole. I didn't compare it with the grandiose tales of yore, but the more recent romantic epics that I have felt fit the appellation. For me they were books like Taylor Caldwell's Captains and the Kings, or Scott's Raj Quartet… these are only English in focus because I am English… that's not the defining factor – the defining factor is the scope and the scale and the detail – and that is what is missing here.

Although we have the rags to riches story and we have the criminality and we have a degree of multi-nationalism of travel and adversity overcome (and not) and families close and disintegrating… it still does not feel like an epic.

Which is a good thing.

It feels like an ordinary story.

Which is another good thing.

Those are good things, because they mean that stories like this one or stories which have elements of this one are not unusual. It means that there is not just a drama here, entertaining as fiction, but that there is a truth here, to which those of us who did not know must pay attention – and about which those who did know, should maybe speak louder.

Despite the title and indeed the main premise of everything that follows, the yakuza and their connection (or otherwise) with the phenomenal (if localised) rise of Pachinko parlours, is largely incidental serving merely as a plot device. The thrust of the novel is what it is to be of Korean descent in Japan. Those of us living in the west have a notion that racial discrimination, hatred and persecution of 'the other' is a peculiarly western failing. We look to the East as a source of wisdom and how wrong we are often proved to be.

We overlook that the East is also populated by human beings with all of the same megalomania and paranoia and imperialism and localism as the rest of the planet.

For all that we (I) have learned about Japan over the years from how and why they fought the mid-20th-century wars the way they did, and how and why they responded afterwards, to the economic rise, and fall, their reputation for efficiency and loyalty and kai zen and taking ideas from the ground up, through the 'company man' and the impact of that on mental health, through karaoke and love hotels and on and on and on… I knew nothing about the Korean issue.

I did not know that third and fourth generation immigrants are still seen as immigrants forced to carry passports of a country they may never have seen… much less about the human failings of compassion and intelligence that sit behind such a policy.

The story must be read for that alone. Not because of what that tells us about the Japanese but because of what it tells us about humanity. Maybe when we get the message that it's happening all over the place on an [insert name here] basis we'll finally realise how stupid it all is and come up with some kind of global standard for citizenship that might steer us in a better direction.

That's why you should read it.

Why you might want to read it (should you not really care about any of that) is simply this: once you've stepped into Sunja's family circle, you will want to know what happens to each of them. A sequence of personalities takes the stage, as happens in life, some good, some not-so-much, some troubled, some absolutely certain of their place in the world, the hard-workers and the lucky and the rest. Min Jin Lee has the confidence to leave gaps of years in her tale, to tell it in vignettes. The episodic nature doesn’t detract. In many ways it is part of the mechanism that keeps you wanting to know what happens next, by making you want to know what you've missed. It's a bit like meeting up with old friends. You don't necessarily find out what you've missed, but you're straight back into wanting to know what next.

It's an enjoyable tale in its own right. But I can't help thinking it might just be a bit more important than that. Certainly for me, it has been.

For a non-fiction look at Japan we can recommend Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane.

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