by ANDREW DONG-HYUN KIM
by Min Jin Lee. Grand Central Publishing, February 2017, pp. 496
Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, released early in 2017, is a landmark piece of English-language fiction for a number of reasons, but perhaps the greatest of these is that it exists at all. Bearing the weight of decades of research and multiple drafts, Pachinko also bears the existence of an often ignored ethno-political group – the Korean Japanese. Lee’s simple yet ambitious novel follows four generations of an ethnically Korean family that immigrates to Japan under the imperial regime and continues to reside there after the decolonization of the Korean peninsula. The Baeks are so-called Zainichi Koreans (in Japanese, “sojourning in Japan” Koreans), who are barred from Japanese citizenship and allotted naturalized status only with great difficulty; Koreans born and raised in Japan must report to their local ward office every three years to request permission to stay in the country. It is no wonder that ethnically Korean Japanese, delegitimized by their own countrymen, are largely elided in American studies of Japan as well – making Pachinko especially miraculous for the critical and popular attention it has received. The nationalistic imagination, with its systematizing hold over the literary market, prefers to render Asian countries ethnically homogeneous with distinct and discrete cultural identities. Lee resists this imagination in Pachinko while giving her characters the same dignity and narrative significance that have traditionally accrued to more ethno-nationally centered family sagas like Buddenbrooks, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Makioka Sisters.
At the same time that Lee resists the nationalistic imagination through the selection of her characters, those same characters run up against the seemingly omnipresent strictures of nationalism. Quoting the intellectual historian Benedict Anderson at the beginning of Part III, Lee highlights Anderson’s thesis that the nation is imagined as a sovereign, limited community that promises a sense of belonging and identification for the post-Enlightenment, post-Revolution individual. The desire for belonging and identification is bound up in Noa, the immigrant family’s first-born son. His story is a tragic example of the psychological borderlines that accompany those of territory and ethnicity, as well as the loss and disenfranchisement inflicted upon individuals who can only ever hope to shutter between identities already codified for them. His mother Sunja asks him, “Is it so terrible to be Korean?” and he replies, with the particularly troubled sense that he is neither Korean nor Japanese and yet inescapably both: “It is terrible to be me.” His story becomes one of striving (and failing) to pass as Japanese, as a scholar of English literature, as “normal,” as “pure.” The novel places his drive for self-realization under trial; he marries a Japanese woman and has children who think they are fully Japanese, but he and his family also seem to lose the family inheritance privileged in Lee’s novel – an inheritance that passes quietly to Noa’s brother Mozasu and his son Solomon.
It is through pachinko – the multibillion-dollar gambling industry in Japan commonly associated with the yakuza and disproportionately staffed and managed by Koreans – that Mozasu makes a living for his family and establishes the Baeks firmly within the country. But any sense of arrival, homecoming, or other long-awaited unproblematic identification with ethnicity and place, remain elusive. Solomon settles instead with the acknowledgement that “in a way, he was Japanese, too, even if the Japanese didn’t think so.” Rather than conforming to the imperatives of ethno-national identity, he and his father come to regard pachinko as a kind of livelihood that translates into the act of living itself: “His Presbyterian minister father had believed in a divine design, and Mozasu 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 also left room for randomness and hope.” Like his brother Noa, Mozasu also recognizes the realities of his double-exile: he is a “Japanese bastard” in Korea and a “dirty Korean” in Japan. But unlike Noa, his and his son’s attitudes toward life moves the narrative past pathos, past nationality, and perhaps even past the question of identification altogether. They are absolutely clear-eyed about the distances and gaps that surround them in their lives, but their most important decisions are based on an intuition of which gaps can or cannot be closed. At the same time that they work within the limitations of nationalism’s racism, they are determined to flourish by their own integrity rather than seek an illusory nationalistic integrity, bypassing through a sheer disregard the chain of colonizations by which Noa loses himself.
The novel draws its core strength and continuity, however, from its female characters. The great-grandmother Yangjin, her daughter Sunja, and Sunja’s sister-in-law Kyunghee carry the family through poverty, wartime conditions, and harsh multigenerational Japanese discrimination against Koreans. They sell kimchi in street markets, nurse the family’s sick and dying, save money, and follow their sons and grandsons from one Japanese city to another. The novel also sketches an outer circle of Japanese women who, socially and economically disenfranchised themselves, form an intersectional web with the Koreans beyond each individual woman’s knowledge. “A woman’s lot is to suffer” becomes a refrain that loses none of its intensity as the decades pass along, announcing its presence persistently in the face of the family’s gradual accumulation of wealth. If Mozasu and Solomon ultimately choose to disregard the injustice that crushes Noa’s spirit, the women regard too much: the novel is unrelenting in its vestigial circulation of Noa’s tragedy among the hearts of the Korean women. Sunja, “mostly ashamed of her life,” wonders bitterly, “Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?”
Pachinko is a novel that, in resisting tidy encapsulations and identifications, and in resisting the impulse to paint its characters with a sweep of the epic brush, gains a heightened reality that can, paradoxically, be called epic. The novel is epic because of its modesty, because it is unassuming in its prose and yet absolutely generous in its presentation of the facts of its characters’ lives. These characters are not “larger than life.” They are not heroic individuals giving voice to the collective. Rather, they are molded by the intricate circumstances of their lives without themselves turning into molds.