There are not many family sagas that are non-European but Min Jin Lee has added Pachinko to the genre. Sunja Baek is the Korean woman that we follow to Japan. Hooni and Yongji are her parents, poor Koreans who carve out a viable economic space for themselves in the years just before the Japanese come to occupy the Korean Peninsula (in 1910, prior to Europe’s first world war). Hooni is born with a hair lip and does not expect to marry, but he has strength and personality. Yongji is old enough as a single woman to believe she will never marry. Sunja is their only living daughter. She is no great beauty but she has the allure of youth and she is pursued with some patient skill by Koh Hansu, who only visits Korea, but actually lives in Japan. When she tells him she is pregnant he offers to support her but tells her he cannot marry her.
Sunja and her mother run a boarding house for fishermen which is popular because her mother is a great cook. Izak Baek comes to their boarding house very ill, having just arrived in their village on the ferry. He is a Christian minister, going to Japan to take up a post in his brother’s congregation. He most likely has consumption (TB to us) and is not strong. When he learns of Sunja’s pregnancy he asks her to marry him and come to Japan with him. Sunja is reluctant to go because Koh Hansu lives in the very city where they will go to live but she has few options.
Sunja has a son, named Noah and another son named Mozasu (after Moses). Christians are outlawed in Japan and Koreans are looked upon as dogs so the family lives in what is basically the Korean ghetto. Sunja’s husband Isak is arrested and thrown in jail for preaching Christianity. His health problems make this particularly punitive for him. By the time he gets out of jail he is in very bad shape indeed. According to this author, the Japanese do not feel any foreign people are fine enough to be accepted by the Japanese people. This is the same attitude, seven decades later, that Sunja’s grandson Solomon encounters when he returns from school in America to work in Japan.
Noah, Sunja and Izak’s first child, is actually the son of Koh Hansu. Hansu climbs the power ladder in Japan, but as a yakuza, so he is considered a criminal type, like a member of a mafia. Noah does not know this man is his father. Noah is very bright and longs to go to college in Japan. Hansu makes sure Noah is able to do as he wishes but there are repercussions and, in a sense, Sunja pays for her sins. The second son meets a Korean mentor who runs several Pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a game similar to pinball but it also involves gambling, so our equivalent of a Pachinko parlor is a casino. Many owners are criminals but Mozasu’s mentor runs his businesses cleanly. Eventually this second son owns three Pachinko parlors of his own and the family no longer has to worry about money.
This book covers the generations of this family growing up in Japan between 1910 and 1989. These Korean people never become Japanese citizens because, in fact, even if an immigrant from Korea does become a naturalized citizen, Koreans must carry passports from South Korea. The family may be fictional but the events they live through are not. This follows the form we are used to in most family sagas.
Sunja lives with Izak’s brother Joseph and his wife and it is the lives of the two couples and their offspring that we follow for seven decades and through two world wars. This novel requires an investment in time but the history covered is new to most of us and interesting because of it.
I listened to this book on Audible as I was able to use a credit to read it in that format without cost. The narrator had a clear voice but she was so sweet she did not always seem appropriate in times when life got bitter for the family. There is also some graphic sex in the last section of the book which seemed odd when read in the same tone as the rest. The sexual scenes were there for a reason but were quite jarring juxtaposed against the rest of the content. Even when Sunja had her illicit relationship with Koh Hansu the encounters were not at all graphic (of course Sunja’s experiences were in 1910 and Hannah’s experiences were in the 1980’s). Still I think if this was used as a book club selection readers would need to be forewarned about what to expect. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a book that is growing on me now that I have finished reading it. It is vivid enough to be memorable but has a sort of sparseness that makes it better as history than as literature.