KLASSEN ON BOOKS - MAY 2018 (Reviews)


John Klassen


Min Jin Lee

Lee (1968-) was born in Seoul and moved to the USA when she was seven years old. She studied law in university and worked for several years as a corporate lawyer in New York. She lived in Japan 2007-2011, and now lives in New York. Her first novel: Free Food for Millionaires was published in 2007. It was included in a number of lists for Top 10 Best Novels for that year. Pachinko was published 2017; it received strong reviews and again was included in a number of Top 10 lists.

Pachinko Pachinko is a multi-generational epic with strong characters and an engaging, dynamic storyline that takes the reader from Korea (under Japanese rule) in the early 1900s, to Japan in 1933, through the Depression and WWII, post-war recovery, and then the years of economic growth well into the 1980s as characters weave through Nagano, Osaka, Yokohama, New York, Tokyo.
Lee has said that themes in her writing are loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, and faith. All of these play throughout the novel as Lee explores the lives of ordinary people caught up in historical catastrophes as they also deal with individual needs of food, shelter, employment, work, relationships, love, family, dignity, and death.

This is an immigrant story and a difficult one. Koreans were not accepted as citizens in Japan, and they certainly had no equivalency of rights even though, as one character remarks: “There was more to being something than just blood”. Instead, the Japanese view, with very few individual exceptions, was conveyed with every hoary and racist epithet used to describe and denigrate Koreans. Even living a ‘clean’ life with no brush against the law would not be sufficient protection if any suspicion rested on a Korean person. Second and third generations would hide their Korean heritage by avoiding, or lying, about it because of the effects on personal and economic prospects; this despite the fact that culturally, socially, and linguistically they were indistinguishable from Japanese. Living with this sort of split-personality can create internal conflicts, in some more powerfully than in others, and it leads to tragedy in the novel.  Another thread common in multigenerational stories, and which goes back at least to Herodotus, is how the effects of actions taken in one generationcan echo through those following, often as negative pressures and circumstances with sometimes serious consequences. This is a major line through Pachinko. There are strong major and minor male characters throughout the novel, but it is the women and the mothers who are the mainstays in providing not only the maintenance and continuity of family, but also the day-to-day sustenance of life.

Why ‘Pachinko’ as the title of the book? Lee has noted that pachinko is one of the few lucrative areas in Japan where Koreans were able to establish business ventures and so it provided a framework for a novel. On another level, the game is a metaphor for life and certainly for the lives lived in this novel. One of the characters notes that he, “believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which all left room for randomness and hope.”  A fine novel, a great plot and characters, a compelling read.

Two other multi-generational novels that I would recommend, are: Invisible Mountain by Carolina de Robertis, set in Uruguay (reviewed in JustOttawa, June/July, 2015); and The Son, by Philip Meyer, set in Texas.

Tags: John Klassen