31: Book Review – Pachinko

Pachinko is a multigenerational saga that spans four generations of a Korean family. The various book covers are just gorgeous, yes I judge books by their covers and what?

It begins in Yeongdo, Busan with an arranged marriage between Hoonie, the cleft-lipped, club-footed son of a fisherman, and Yangjin, a 15-year-old “as mild and tender as a newborn calf”.

The story follows their only daughter Sunja, pregnant with Noa by Hansu (a Japanese Yakuza, who shadows Sunja from afar, interrupting their lives in times of crisis offering shelter or financial aid), into Osaka, Japan.

It’s a delicately hypnotic read that I couldn’t put down. First, I hear you ask, what exactly is a pachinko?
Pachinko: is a type of mechanical game originating in Japan and is used as both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently as a gambling device.

By 1994, the pachinko market in Japan was valued at ¥30 trillion (nearly $300 billion).” I swear facts like these blow my tiny mind, “as of 2015, Japan’s pachinko market generates more gambling revenue than that of Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore combined.

Back to the book. There is almost too much that could be discussed, but luckily I’m not writing an essay for Uni but a simple review for my blog. Lucky me.

What gripped me was the all too familiar tale of female sacrifice and hardship; a mother tells her only daughter “a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering” . It is a concise prophecy that seems to ring true for all the women in the book who are touched over and over by loss, bereavement, poverty, disease, imprisonment, and putting the needs of the husbands and families before their own.

There is the discrimination faced by the Korean characters living in Japan, female and male, in all aspects of their life, a character states “In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastard, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make, or how nice I am.” which shows that no matter how hard the Koreans tried they would still be second class citizens in both their native country and their adopted country.

Then there is education, for which there is always a universal unquenchable thirst, “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge—it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.” Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn, and it occurred to Noa that there was a marked difference. Learning was like playing, not labor.” yet even in some circumstances education cannot pull you out of the conflict one has within themselves.

All in all I thought the book was bloody brilliant, I despaired over the academically gifted Noa, the son of Sunja and Hansu, and his drawn out struggle to reconcile his Korean heritage with his desire to be Japanese but ultimately his need to be seen as human. “because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.” Endearing Mozasu, son of Sunja and Isak, who is not academically inclined but instead finds success with a job in a pachinko parlor.

The lives of Mozasu and Noa eventually lead the story back to Sunja, visiting her husband’s grave. A monolith she stands, reflecting perhaps, alone and hardened after a lifetime of turmoil, before returning home to carry on. A survivor..

Krys Lee says in the New York Times “Like most memorable novels, however, “Pachinko” resists summary. In this sprawling book, history itself is a character. “Pachinko” is about outsiders, minorities and the politically disenfranchised. But it is so much more besides. Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was.

I could write pages preaching the effortless writing and engaging tale but only picking it up for yourself will truly bring to life this family’s tale of survival and tragedy.

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