People usually see fiction literature as a means of entertainment. However, a good book may serve much deeper purposes than providing aesthetic satisfaction to the reader. It makes you think about the issues they have never considered before or take a fresh and, sometimes, unexpected look at the familiar problems and ideas. Even more importantly, a great piece of literature can make the reader feel uncomfortable, disturbed, but yet deeply satisfied. Pachinko is a perfect example of the latter type of literary work since it raises a set of concerning issues but still manages to spread the message of resilience and hope through the most challenging circumstances.
In fact, Pachinko is not a single novel but a series of three books covering the story of an extended family through a prolonged timespan. Namely, the events of the story start at the beginning of the twentieth century and go through to the middle of it. However, the continuity of the narrative makes it reasonable to discuss the trilogy as a whole for the purpose of this review instead of focusing on each separate entry.
It all starts with Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 when Hoonie, the youngest and the only surviving son in a fisherman’s family marries Yangjin, a poor farmer’s daughter, to ensure the survival of both households. This marriage brings about Sunja who is about to become the central character of the story alongside her children.
Sunja’s life is filled with hardships and obstacles created by the fact that she was a Korean person in the Japanese empire, as well as the larger context of worldwide events (the Second World War being the most graphic example of the latter). Throughout the story, she fights for her own place in life and struggles to establish a better future for her children. Sunja ventures into what is to be considered a small business in modern terms by making kimchi, a Korean specialty. However, the war makes the endeavor futile. Despite this and many other failures, Sunja remains optimistic about life, and she is never hopeless about the future. Perhaps, it is the lessain every reader should draw from the story.
There are several points of interest when it comes to the story. Having covered a significant timespan and quite a variety of characters, Lee managed to create a literary work that leaves no one untouched. However, there are several elements to Pachinko that deserve special attention.
The word “pachinko” refers to a mechanical game which stays on the edge between a pinball and a slot machine. The device is extremely popular in Japan. Therefore, the title of the whole series contains both an obvious metaphor, and a more subtle one.
On the one side, the author compares the lives of her characters, and of human beings in general, to a game of pachinko. People are similar to the bolls who change their directions due to being constantly hit by the array of small pins. In other words, people cannot be in control of their own lives. However, whether to see this fact as an obstacle towards happiness is a matter of personal choice.
On the other side, the fact that the author chose to give a story about Korean people the name of an attraction popular in Japan has a meaning of its own. It all boils down to the annexation of Korea which, in fact, sets the events of the whole trilogy in motion. The japanese enter the life of Korean village by storm and change it forever not only for the people living there, but also for their offspring. This observation leads us to the discussion of one of the story’s key themes, namely:
Sanja and her family are constantly reminded that Korean people are not welcome in Japan. This state of affairs may seem paradoxical bearing in mind that Japan annexed Korea making it part of the country. However, it would be extremely naive to assume that the purpose of the annexation was peaceful coexistence. Surely, cultural expansion has proven to be much more thorough and devastating than the military one. Things are not made any better by the hostility cultivated within the conquered society. For example, Sunja’s son Mozasu has failed to fit either Japanese or Korean society despite his apparent success in establishing material wealth through running pachinko parlors. He argues that he is too Japanese for the Korean, but too Korean for the Japanese. His situation exemplifies the tragedy of people left on the crossroads of cultures and whose only fault was their desire for a better life.
The issue raised above makes it easy to see that one of the main challenges faced by the characters of the story is establishing their personal identities. Noa, Sunji’s older son is a graphic example of the way in which the search of an appropriate identity may ruin one’s life. Upon learning that his biological father is a yakuza, he decided to sever ties with his family and start a new life under the guise of a Japanese person. However, this move proves to be disastrous for him and his mother.
The book is worth reading for anyone interested in the development of human relationships over time. The seriousness of the issues it raises may scare away prospective readers, but getting familiar with the characters and their fates will make you immerse in the story without slightest doubt.