Pachinko is an almost perfect book.
It follows five generations of the same Korean family, from the 1910s to the 1980s. The story of the first generation, in the 1910s and 1920s, is summarised in seven pages, an absolute gem of a first chapter that reminded me of the beginning of Pixar’s Up in the economy with which it unfolds a couple’s life, and the emotional punch it packs at the end. That the rest of the book holds up so well after such an amazing beginning is a bit of a miracle. Chapter Two then jumps to 1933, the year the second generation migrates to Japan. For the rest of the book, almost everything else that happens to the characters happens in Japan, a country where Koreans suffered much legal and cultural discrimination throughout the book’s timespan.
Pachinko is one of those rich, hefty family sagas, with everything you’d expect from the genre: illicit children, affairs, ambition thwarted, ambition rewarded, disappearances, secrets, financial struggles, tuberculosis, brushes with crime, unexpected deaths, lots of babies, seemingly immortal matriarchs, gangsters with hearts of gold, and, every now and then, History stirring things up a bit, most obviously in the 40s, with WWII. A lot of the pleasure I got from this book derived simply from watching all these lives unfurl, devouring page after page just to see what comes next, sixty years’ worth of soap opera compressed into 485 pages–will Isak survive his second bout of tuberculosis? will Sunja be able to make enough money with her kimchi stall? will Mozasu drop out of school? will Noa find out who his real father is? will Solomon marry Phoebe?
Before reading it, I was afraid that Pachinko would be too long, too slow, too didactic. And, because its main characters belong to a marginalised ethnic minority–and many of them happen to be Christian, which also makes them a marginalised religious minority–I also thought the author might present them all as saints and martyrs, mawkishly pure souls chewed up by a cartoonishly cruel, oppressive system.
Happily, this was not the case.
The length and pacing are spot-on–even when I still had several hundred pages to go, I found it more exciting than overwhelming (all this stuff that’s yet to happen!), and I would have happily kept going if the author had decided to add a bunch of chapters going up till the present day, instead of stopping at 1989. It helps that we don’t read about every little thing that happens as it happens, but jump forward by a few years with almost every chapter.
As for the novel being too didactic, I’m super-impressed at the self-control it must have taken for Lee not to turn every other paragraph into an encyclopaedia entry on Korean or Japanese culture, considering thirty years’ worth of research went into this book. Instead, you end up learning a lot about the story’s socio-cultural and historical context, but almost without noticing.
And then there are the characters. The only one that I did not find convincing was Hana, who, in the book’s final third, falls a bit too neatly into all the “troubled teenager” and “fallen woman” tropes. But that’s one character, out of about twenty that I can think of right now. Maybe the characters are, on the whole, a little more saintly than strictly believable: looking back, I can’t think of many moral flaws, and, with the ones that do come to mind, there are obvious ways to defend them. But it really didn’t bother me. Lee is a great storyteller, and, Hana aside, she made me care about every single one of her characters. There’s Hoonie, who is born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot, and cannot believe how perfect in every way his own baby daughter is. There’s Isak, the boundlessly kind pastor who dreams of sacrificing himself for some grand cause, like his elder brother, who fought for Korean independence. There’s Hansu, the gangster with a heart of gold, using his infinite ill-gotten resources to do everything he can for his family. There’s Akiko, the Japanese sociology student who condemns her country’s institutional racism but is blind to the fact that she herself fetishises her boyfriend’s Koreanness. There’s Ayame, who experiences a kind of sexual awakening late in life, after stumbling on an orgy in a cemetery. There’s Yangjin, who leads a very long life of quiet self-sacrifice, then reveals all her secret thoughts to her daughter mere moments before dying. And so on, and so on, and so on. Almost all the characters get given at least one great moment, which could have easily been its own, self-contained short story if Lee had taken that route.
And the system that Lee’s Korean characters struggle against is real, and infuriating, and cruel, but the way Lee portrays the characters’ relationship with Japan is convincingly varied and nuanced. Some try to pass as Japanese, some try to present themselves as “good immigrants”, some decide to embrace stereotypes and take on the kinds of dodgy jobs that are normally associated with Koreans. Some cannot help loving Japan, and do not wish to leave it, no matter how many times it has screwed them.