Thoughts: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is in a genre of book that I tend not to gravitate towards but pretty much always enjoy when it finds its way into my hands – long, sprawling family saga. I don’t know why exactly I don’t seek them out myself – maybe I just don’t know enough about them to feel like I can make a good choice, or maybe there are just too many books in the world that remain impolitely unread by me.

The upside of this is I am surrounded by people with good taste in literature, so when a long, sprawling family saga does find its way into my hands, I can be assured I’m going to enjoy myself.

Pachinko follows a Korean family from a hardscrabble life under Japanese rule in Korea to immigration to Japan, living through the war, the hard postwar years and up to Japan’s economic boom in the 80s, and all the while navigating the brutal structural oppression built into Japanese society.

As I studied Japanese at university, I was aware of the issue of the treatment of people of Korean heritage in Japan (though of course not aware of all its details and all its history). A rumour went around our class that one of our lecturers had Korean heritage, that you could tell because of her unusual surname. I can’t remember where it came from. I remember finding it interesting, and not knowing what to do with the information, so I didn’t do anything with it. I never asked her and I never found out if it was true. I never found anything out about her family history. Understandable, as I was just some random student who’d float through her life for four years and then be gone. Still, I found myself thinking of her while I was reading this book.

Pachinko avoids many of the worst sides to World War 2, the parts people have heard of. China isn’t really mentioned, and the story only very lightly grazes the issue of “comfort women”. It’s primarily concerned with the more insidious side of anti-Korean discrimination, the everyday injustices and casual prejudices that persist always, beneath the individual outrages of atrocity that punctuate capital-h History.

The story was many years in the making and I think it shows a little – so much happened, and so much happened offscreen! Sometimes I found myself flicking back to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and the nature of the timeskips meant I did worry a bit about whether some characters had survived them. It’s just a big, rangy book, and as much as I wished everything could be in it, there’s just no way, so I made my peace.

I enjoyed the company of all the characters, and Lee navigated between them deftly, so that what in another author might have seemed headhoppy only ever shone new light on conversations and relationships. Even Hanso, the secretive yakuza boss manipulating the Baek family’s fortunes from the shadows, the most dislikeable character in the whole thing, gets his inner life. And every character is individual, with their own uncrossable lines and ideas and reactions. Noa’s reaction to a certain large reveal, Sunja’s contradictory feelings towards Hanso, Yangjin’s buried resentments… I could go on. There were just so many things. This book is a feast.

The writing style was very plain, and almost read like a translated East Asian novel. It wasn’t badly written, but my personal preferences tend towards something a little more. I wanted more of pretty much every aspect of the book. I wanted it to go on longer, I wanted to see where everyone would end up and where their descendants would end up… I wanted more of the scenes in between. I wanted more of the characters on the margins.

Haruki’s unfortunate wife, for instance, shows up in one intriguing scene and is never seen again, though she doesn’t get any resolution. You could argue that life doesn’t give us resolutions, but as I’ve said, I don’t often read big life-novels and I tend to want, perhaps naively, things to follow a structure.

When Lee let us get settled into a scene she could be really evocative with that bare style, especially in her dialogue, and especially with more colourful characters – I adored Hana’s dialogue in particular.

Something I kept thinking about while I was reading was the use of Korean and Japanese in the dialogue. I’m a translator, so this is something I think about more than normal people anyway, and my area of expertise is Japanese, so this poked my brain even more. I don’t know quite how I feel about it. My personal rule (bear in mind that you can only have opinions on this, there is no right answer) is that I’d use another language transliterated/untranslated only when it was something that would be particularly difficult to translate – the use of shou ga nai in Pachinko being an example. Shou ga nai is usually translated as “it can’t be helped”, which is straightforward enough, but in the context of the story it represents this big fatalistic side of Japanese culture, a predilection to shrug and accept something rather than try to change it. I liked the use of it here. Shou ga nai is also one of my least favourite Japanese phrases for similar reasons to the characters.

Lee uses Korean and Japanese exclamations and sort of “filler sounds”(? lol I am a linguist) as well, the Korean uh-muh, the Japanese heee? and words for parents and polite address. This too makes sense to me – characters are often switching between languages and this made it easy to keep track of which language people are communicating in, and it works much more elegantly than trying to find an equivalent in English, when like it or not, every one you can think of has its own connotations (socioeconomic, geographical, temporal, etc etc etc) which might not be what Lee is going for. The words people use to refer to their parents are so intimate and personal that sometimes I feel like it’s a disservice to translate them (do you pick mom, mum, mam, mo/u/ammy, mama, ma, marmee?).

But sometimes she’ll drop in a hai (yes) or something that I don’t feel really adds anything. She doesn’t always translate or gloss these fragments either, which I found interesting in general – I have the Japanese, so it didn’t really affect me. I found myself wondering how much was understandable in context to someone with no Japanese. I have zero Korean, but the Korean was much sparser in contrast, only words for food and clothes really, and a few forms of address that were clear in context. But dropping in an untranslated “yes” or “I see” doesn’t add much to me. These things didn’t add to the rhythm of the dialogue to me. Your mileage may vary.

Given how ambitious this book is, and how much I’m enjoying revisiting it in my mind to try to sum up my thoughts on it, it seems immensely unfair to want even more. But readers are like children, and we’re allowed to be so ungrateful. It’s our right to demand the impossible. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more by Lee.

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