At the turn of the century, a cleft-lipped, clubfooted boarding house owner in rural Korea marries fifteen year old Yangjin, the third daughter of an impoverished farmer. She is no beauty, but neither is Hoonie, her husband. They’re a good match. Together, they run a boarding house in a small, seaside town on an idyllic but poor part of the Korean coast. They try to have children, and after their first three babies die their fourth, a daughter named Sunja, is born. Hoonie dotes upon her. She grows up to be a plain but hard-working and responsible woman, at least until she is wooed by a Yakuza named Hansu. Soon, she falls pregnant. When she discovers that he is married, she severs all ties and marries a missionary named Isak, who takes her to Japan where she gives birth to a son named Noa.
This is only the first part of Min Jin Lee’s excellent Pachinko, which spans almost a century. It tells the story of the Baek-clan as they move to Japan at the start of World War II, fight for survival and try to navigate their way as outcasts through Japanese society. A substantial part of the novel is focused on the ethnic Korean minority, the Zainichi. Initially they are treated as little more than filth; later on, the Japanese position becomes a bit more nuanced, but still Sunja’s grandson, a second-generation Japanese Korean, needs to register with the government when he turns sixteen or face deportation to a country that he and his father have never even visited. It all seems ludicrous, and the novel spends a lot of time examining the complex dynamics of the family’s subservient position in society, both through random encounters with faceless government policy and racist drunks as well as through, for example, Noa’s girlfriend Akiko, who is Japanese but sympathetic towards their plight.
But the heart of the novel is the emotional connection between the various family members. Sunja feels like she can never repay her husband’s sacrifice of marrying a woman pregnant with a married man’s child; at the same time, she cannot seem to separate herself from Hansu, if only because he is rich and she is poor. Hansu, who has three daughters with his wife, takes a continued interest in Noa, his only son, and though Sunja doesn’t want him to the war forces her to accept his help, which in turn leads to guilt and disappointment with Isak’s brother Yoseb, who works hard yet fails to provide for the family. Though most characters in the novel are men, women form the emotional heart of the story as they work hard under gruelling conditions, kept alive by nothing but dedication and devotion to their families. Not that this book is an ode to the traditional family unit; when the men can’t provide, it’s Sunja, her mother and her daughter in law who keep them alive. They aren’t helpless, but they aren’t infallible either.
A few years ago I read Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and though I thought it was a good book, what I remember most about it is how abjectly horrible all of the characters were, and how much resentment and animosity lingered between them. Pachinko is the opposite of that. Characters are motivated primarily a sense of duty towards and love for each other, even when they do not understand each other’s choices, even when they cannot forgive each other. Noa and his brother Mozasu are two very different people who make very different choices in life, and though they often don’t approve there is no lingering resentment. The novel ends on a high note. It’s told in a patient, no-frills kind of fashion, which fits the characters’ personality.
It took me a while to finish Pachinko because it’s such a big book, but I’m glad I read it. There is a sense of optimism that is woven through the novel that might just be what I needed.