Blood / Water – grandson
I Will Follow You Into the Dark – Death Cab for Cutie
One Point Perspective – Arctic Monkeys
Amazing – Aerosmith
Long & Lost – Florence + themachine
Losing my Religion – REM
American Sports – Arctic Monkeys
After the Strom – Mumford & Sons
“Because she would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.”
“Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.”
There are a lot of books that profess to be an encapsulation of historic conflicts, the migration of people and their struggles in the new found land. However, many of them tend to lose steam along the way or simply find themselves unable to portray humanitarian struggles which occur at so large a scale it is impossible to translate them unto a two-dimensional story line. Pachinko, is no such book. It manages to recount the story and struggle of five generations of Koreans who struggle through poverty, war, famine, immigration and manage to survive in a new country where their identity is treated to the likeliness of vermin.
I’d usually include a summary of what the book entails, but I fear that attempting to summarize Pachinko would only marr its beautiful storyline. It tracks the four generations of the Baek family as they go toil to survive through the Japanese invasion, a private humiliation and resettlement in Osaka. The story’s protagonist Sunja, is a simple featured woman who has been hardened by constant work and understanding of the life of a peasant, in fact, throughout the story, Sunja continues to be a dependable matron of the house, ensuring that her offspring have everything they need and desire asking for little in return for herself.
The story by itself is a testament to human suffering and the extent to which individuals are willing to go in order to provide the best for their children. Coming from a background that preaches a similar ideology, I’d always assumed that it was something independent to the Indian experience – but surprisingly it seems to be a permeating trait throughout those in the Asiatic continent who have suffered the humiliation of colonization and now seek nothing better than to ensure that their children would grow up to work with opportunities they never had.
The narration itself is rich in detail – it brings to life every experience of the family, whether it be their lives in the small fishing village of Yeongdo with its clear blue waters or the communal ghetto in Osaka which reeks of destitution and poverty. The Pachinko, a slot-machine-like game, after which the novel is named, is the central unifier for the Korean population who find themselves discriminated by regular Japanese society. Titled Zainichi and shunned from all forms of public traditional occupation, the game serves as not only a leisurely pastime, but also a primary source of work and accumulation of wealth, which Sunja’s younger son Mozasu capitalizes upon.
However, you see the discrimination that exists despite the best of what money can buy – Koreans who wear Hanboks are stared at, the language and food mocked, the people treated as second-class citizens requiring registration cards every three years despite having been born in Japan. The only solace available to several of them is to pretend to be Japanese, something that the eldest son, Noa tries to do. Ad admirable scholar dedicated to his learning, Noa takes bullying by his Japanese classmates to be something he can overcome by proving himself to be a “Good Korean” – someone who can dispel the myth about all Koreans being lazy, deceitful thieves. But it isn’t so easy to shrug an essential part of your identity, a fact that Noa comes to terms with the hard way.
What’s interesting to note, is that while the grief and salvation – in equal amounts – comes from the actions and subsequent consequences of the men in our primary protagonist Sunja’s life, the most admirable quality of the story is the ability of its women to be able to shoulder through life and everything it throws at them. They’re thrifty, hardened women who don’t believe in being left to the devices of men. They play their dutiful roles of wives and housekeepers, but with an admirable pride that doesn’t stop them from becoming working women when necessary. Summed up best by Yangjin, Sunja’s mother, “A Woman’s lot is to suffer”. This is a phrase that can be found across genres and cultures alike, but transcends boundaries – when men and their pride fail to make ends meet, it is the women of the house who work long hours in grueling conditions to support their children.
There are several characters sprinkled throughout the story that amplify a plethora of views one can have about the same issue – Phoebe, an American bred Korean who feels amplified hate at the Japanese without having suffered it, Mr. Kim who wishes so deeply to return to Pyongyang and help rebuild the country for future generations, Isak Baek who believes the best in people even when they hand him the very worst that life can offer and most
Perhaps what makes this book so great isn’t in its plot – for that’s the story of most Diasporas who are forced to migrate for a better life. The beauty of the story lies in its ability to talk about a community that has gone largely ignored by the rest of the world, especially by the Japanese that have simply designated them to the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder and left them there. The book tells a story of people who arrived with nothing in a land that didn’t speak their language and wanted them to disappear – yet they persevered and assimilated into its economy with a quiet persistence that can be said to be admirable in the least. In a world where Japan is only just recognizing its abhorrent use of Comfort Women, this story is a haunting representation of the Korean struggle written in such beautiful prose it becomes as comforting as home.
My Rating: 4/5