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
This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies