“History has failed us, but no matter” is the opening line of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko. This sweeping, historical, and immersive family saga delves deeply into the experiences of Korean immigrants in Japan between 1910 and 1989.
The story begins in a small fishing village in Yeongdo, Korea. There, we are introduced to fishermen, farmers, and vendors who make up the village. Among them is a man named Hoonie, who is born with a cleft lip and a twisted foot. Despite his physical deformities, Hoonie is respected throughout the village. He marries Yangjin, daughter of a farmer who lost everything during the Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Hoonie and Yangjin have one daughter, Sunja, who they showered with love and affection.
Sunja becomes the most integral character in Pachinko and the heart by which the story is propelled forward. By choosing to tell a story through the lens of an average Korean family, Min Jin Lee gives us a glimpse of Korea’s rich culture and how Koreans were affected during the Japanese colonialism as well as during and after World War II.
The characters are portrayed with remarkable humanity and authenticity. We see most of them experience overwhelming hardships. Sunja and her parents lived through abject poverty. When Sunja, along with her husband, emigrated to Osaka, Japan, she, as well as her fellow Koreans, are treated horribly by others (Japanese and Koreans alike), forcing them to live in impoverished circumstances, to endure discrimination as well as racism, and to succumb to desperate situations—prostitution, gangs, crimes—in order to survive.
On an interview with PBS, Lee mentions how fiction allowed her to deftly explore people’s complexities and contradictions. Lee recognizes that one cannot simply describe a person within the category of good and evil, black and white, light and dark. In Pachinko, even though Koreans experience maltreatment in Japan, the Japanese characters in the book are not portrayed as contemptible people. In point of fact, there were Japanese who also suffered at the time, especially those who showed empathy towards Koreans. Moreover, Lee shows how other Koreans take advantage of their fellow Koreans. They do it not out of malign intent but for their desperate need to survive.
Lee creates well-rounded and fully realized human characters. As readers, we find ourselves deeply and emotionally invested in them, the relationships they create, and the fate they hold. If books are bridges by which we can put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, Lee profoundly changes the way we connect to literature. In an article from the The Atlantic, Lee says that she’s “interested in creating radical empathy through art”. This radical empathy is evident throughout Pachinko. As we slowly start to partake in the character’s misfortunes and triumphs, our views shift; then, we realize that these fictional characters reflect real people.
Lee’s writing style is straightforward. She lets her characters and their story be the focal point of her narrative. Furthermore, she examines Korean identity with depth and integrity. At its core, Pachinko is a tale of hope and forgiveness. It is a book that shows how one can catch a glimpse of a glimmer of light through the dark times. It is a story of people rising above the injustices and inequities they have experienced. Pachinko is one of those rare books that will transcend time.