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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee tells the story of Koreans living in Japan

Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state.

The multigenerational family saga, spanning decades and often countries, has offered a way of looking at how individuals find themselves situated in relation to history, how they battle it and survive, sometimes even with a measure of triumph. The Korean-American novelist Min Jin Lee’s second novel, Pachinko, marries the story of the generations with the immigrant narrative, but with a twist: instead of the now exhausted account of people fetching up in the West to forge a new life amid the travails of assimilation, Lee looks at a little-known history of exile – that of Koreans in Japan in the 20th century.

Lee’s novel begins in 1910, among poor people on the islet of Yeongdo in Busan, in a Korea that has been occupied by Japan. Hoonie, a good, simple, hard-working man with a cleft palate and twisted foot, finds a bride when he meets Yangjin, a destitute farmer’s daughter. Their only child, Sunja, becomes pregnant at 16 after a brief romance with a charismatic and mysterious older man, Hansu – who, we later discover, is a yakuza, a member of Japan’s organised crime network. Hansu is unable to marry Sunja because he already has a wife and family in Japan. A young Christian pastor, Isak, offers to marry her and give the child paternity, but he is bound for Osaka – and here Sunja moves to Japan, as does the novel. Lee’s cast of Korean characters will not be able to return home; nor will they be born on foreign soil.

In Osaka, Isak and Sunja join Isak’s brother, Yoseb, and Yoseb’s wife, Kyunghee, in a Korean ghetto called Ikaino. It is here that the outrageous discrimination against ­Korean immigrants begins to mark the narrative, providing the insistent moral/political heart of the book. Theirs is a hardscrabble life: Isak earns a pittance as the minister of the local church, and the family is almost entirely supported by Yoseb’s small income from his job as a foreman and mechanic at a biscuit factory.

Sunja’s first son, Noa, is born, and then her second, with Isak – Mozasu. After the Second World War breaks out, Isak is arrested on the flimsiest of charges during the crackdown on Koreans and disappears for more than two years. When he is released he is a man broken by torture and tuberculosis and he dies shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, much against the wishes of Yoseb, the two women have set up a market stall selling home-made kimchi and sweets and, later, cooking in a restaurant. The hardship gets worse as the war progresses; then Hansu reappears and arranges for the family to be moved to a farm in the country before the Allied bombing of Japanese cities. It emerges that he has kept tabs on the family because he has a vital stake in it: Noa, his son.

After the war, the situation gets worse. Yoseb is severely burned in an accident, but despite their dismal financial situation Sunja refuses to accept help from the powerful and wealthy Hansu. Noa, taking after Isak, turns out to be a gentle, bookish, upright soul, while his brother Mozasu is more carefree, dashing and worldly. By dint of hard work, and overcoming all odds, Noa gets a place to study English literature at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo but the family can’t afford to send him there. Hansu steps in and paves the way, despite Sunja’s misgivings and Yoseb’s opposition.

Mozasu becomes a successful manager and, later, an owner of pachinko parlours (pachinko being the pinball-style gambling machine that gives the book its title), moving from Osaka to Yokohama. Inevitably Noa finds out who Hansu really is, and when he does the sense of shame and disgust that overcomes him has far-reaching consequences.

The self-loathing that is thrust upon Noa becomes a metaphor for Koreans living in Japan – those whom the Japanese call zainichi and look upon as less than human. Noa’s erasure of his Korean identity and transformation into “Nobuo Ban”, his Japanese name, is uneasy at best: “In no way did he see his current life as a rebirth. Noa carried the story of his life as a Korean like a dark, heavy rock within him. Not a day passed when he didn’t fear being discovered.”

It is a sentiment that recurs in the novel, echoed by several characters, with the coherence and heft of a motif. Throughout the book, spanning nearly a century and four generations, Koreanness is a flickering state, in an unstable equilibrium between erasure, first of all; problematic, even impossible assimilation; and, finally, an inchoate assertion. In Solomon, Mozasu’s son, who attends university in the US but chooses to continue his father’s pachinko business over working for an investment bank, the story of those in permanent exile is not returned to, but reclaimed as a broken past.

Lee writes about every character with sympathy, generosity and understanding; in particular, Sunja, the woman who holds the story together, is a wonderful creation. The immensely dignified survivors in this story are the two women at its core, Sunja and Kyunghee: history has bent but not broken them. They have endured. 

Neel Mukherjee’s third novel, “A State of Freedom”, will be published in July by Chatto & Windus

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon