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Book review and interview: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Book review and interview: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

by Fred Varcoe

“History has failed us, but no matter.” So starts Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s epic novel on Korea and Japan, which spans most of the painful century that Korea endured first under the Japanese occupiers, later under its own home-bred tyrants. If others had written that opening line, you could imagine an ironic cackle of laughter coming after it, bearing in mind Japan’s official line on the history of its relations with Korea.

But Lee’s novel does not represent a hammer blow of revenge. Koreans have endured so much in the last 100-plus years, it doesn’t require a battle axe to draw blood – or even a scalpel. Rather, Lee’s weapon is the sculptor’s chisel, slowly creating a huge work of art and carving out truth in her words.

The novel, which runs to nearly 500 pages, starts in Korea. We are introduced to Sunja, a simple and kind-hearted girl blossoming into womanhood. The blossoming gets a helping hand from a smart-dressed guy who grooms, seduces and impregnates the simple Sunja. She opts for an opportunistic marriage to a Korean priest heading for Osaka and her odyssey in Japan begins.

Life for Sunja and ordinary Koreans in the Japanese empire is bleak, except for those few smart-dressed men who can exploit their own people and the Japanese. Sunja – easily seen as a symbol of Korea – is pure at heart, and true to herself and her decent upbringing in a world of temptation, terror and vice. Sunja refuses to take the easy way out and live off the riches of her seducer. For her, the pain of honesty is worth it.

With the storyline covering decades, her family and friends are confronted with the reality of life as Koreans in Japan – the hardships, the prejudices, choices between right and wrong. Her two sons choose distinctly different routes to “acceptability.” Both become involved with pachinko – a bit of a cliché and perhaps the only blot on Lee’s copybook – but their lives and fates remain poles apart. In Lee’s deft hand, neither is right, neither is wrong. Sunja’s purity, humanity and love remain a constant despite the turmoil and tragedy in her life.

Lee dresses the politics in a comfortable overcoat of normal life – that is, normal life in the 20th century for Koreans living under or in Japan. She could be accused of soft-pedalling on the truth and even hiding it from view. The torture, rape and enslavement of a noble country and their people beneath the trampling boots of the Japanese army is alluded to more than described. Indeed, to have described it would have made Lee a polemicist rather than a novelist. As she states below, including the politics is easy; getting the emotional balance was the hard part. And it’s hard because she had to make the reality of life for Sunja and her family hard. This is not a Hollywood movie; characters are beaten up, suffer and die when you don’t want them to. They don’t come back and rescue the heroine.

Pachinko is a family drama and Lee certainly gets the emotional side right. You connect with the characters and are eager to find out what fate has for them. Throughout, Sunja carries herself with solidity, grace and sacrifice. Some Japanese would call it gaman. For Koreans, it has been about, to quote Emperor Showa, “enduring the unendurable.” Pachinko is set in the past, but in a political world dominated by Japan’s pugnacious right, it’s also a book of the present.


Interview with Pachinko author Min Jin Lee

Fred Varcoe: I only know that you went to America at the age of 7, but don't know why, so my first dumb question is: How Korean do you feel? Or how Korean are you? Or how Korean do you want to be?

Min Jin Lee: I don’t think it’s a dumb question. I think it’s honest. I feel more or less Korean depending on where I am. In Seoul, I feel very American. In New York, not so Korean, rather, far more American. In Japan, I felt like a Martian, because I was so often misread ethnically and culturally. As you know, in America or anywhere else, really, there is no such thing as a South Korean-identified Korean-Japanese (Mindan) or North Korean-identified Korean-Japanese (Chongryon/Soren), so that was odd, too. In an ideal sense, everyone considers himself or herself existentially and ontologically whole without race, ethnicity or nation; however, the objective reality is that we have our physical envelopes and cultural legacy/baggage, which distinguish us from the majority. Consequently, I feel very respectful to how an individual interprets his reality. Some of us belong everywhere, and some of us belong nowhere – in a curious way, I think this is very true of all writers.

FV: Did you set out with a political statement in mind? It's hard/ impossible to write about the topic of Koreans in and related to Japan without being political, but was there a purpose in mind when you came up with the idea for the book?

MJL: In the first version of this manuscript (the one I wrote from 1996-2003), I was very political and consequently, for me, that book failed artistically. It was dull and stupid as a novel. I did not try to send it out and I was depressed about how bad it was. Then, after I moved to Japan and lived there from 2007-2011, I met many, many Korean-Japanese and Japanese folks, who became intimate friends, and I felt more able to write about one Korean-Japanese family. I do not speak for the Korean-Japanese people; in fact, I think even a highly educated Korean-Japanese person does not speak for a whole community. Pachinko is a work of fiction about characters who are real to me.

FV: Notwithstanding the above questions, you seem to land your punches in a velvet glove. It's easy to beat Japan over the head for its crimes against Korea, but you seem to refrain from doing that and I assume it was intentional …

MJL: I like your phrasing. As we know, the Japanese people are not cartoon villains, and in the same way, the North Koreans are not child kidnappers. It is racist to equate the evil actions of several individuals with groups of people who share immutable traits or ethnic origins. It is insulting to readers to present binaries of good versus evil, when in fact, all of us end up flawed, foolish, afraid, as well as sublime, appealing, and wise. There is so much about Japan that I love and admire, and I wanted very much to share this feeling in this book. The colonial history of Korea is painful, but I do not see it as humiliating or shameful. So many Koreans do not like this 20th century history because they were on the losing side. I think the Koreans I have met in South Korea and around the world have only demonstrated their resilience and vitality in the face of tragic circumstances. I think the alleged winners did not win, and the alleged losers did not lose.

FV: Have you had hate mail, etc., as a result of the book?

MJL: I have had a few Twitter trolls, but gosh, haven’t we all? I’ve had the unexpected privilege of receiving wonderful, kind letters from Japanese, Korean-Japanese and Koreans from around the world. I think my book is very fair to every side, and I think readers, too, are savvy enough to get this.

FV: “History has failed us” – Will it go on failing Korea, Koreans and zainichi?

MJL: Yes. I believe that history will continue to fail Korea (both North and South), Koreans and the Korean-Japanese, but that does not mean that history will favor the Japanese or the so-called superpower nations. There is a national cost to inequity and a denial of its true history. There is an extraordinary price to future generations of a nation that refuses to acknowledge its moral failings. History tends to fail the poor, disenfranchised, elderly, sick, and minorities. There is far too much proof that throughout history, all working class people have been failed by those in charge. Governments and ruling bodies are disappointing human creations, and sadly, even in advanced democracies, the ones in charge tend to favor themselves over the greater good. Independent media and the freedom of the press are the last bulwarks of democracy and truth, and as we know, we live in a time with an endangered and troubled fair and free media. I am a journalist and a fiction writer, and I am increasingly alarmed by the threats we face as we do our work.

Fred Varcoe is a Chiba-based freelance journalist and reluctant historian

Published in: February 2018

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