The book for this month: Pachinko, by Min Jee Lee was recommended by a member who unfortunately couldn't get to the group. The 6 members there all enjoyed it immensely. The story of a Korean family living in Japan, began in 1910 concluding in the 1970's. Initial comments said they could not put the book down, describing it as a superb epic covering the tragedy and heart breaks of Koreans who lived in Japan since the 1920's. The characters were engaging and very believable. It was told in clean simple prose, a lot of the action happened off camera. While it focussed on the resiliance and gutsiness of the characters it was not melodramatic.
Anne told the story of visiting Korea and visiting the demilitarised zone. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. There is a lot of prejudice towards North Korea.
A couple of members had read the interview with Min Jee Lee: she was inspired to write the story by hearing a lecture of the story of the Korean diaspora in Japan, and specifically the story of a young Korean student who had suicided following his bullying by his Japanese peers.
The main character in the book is Sunja, a woman from a small village, not a great beauty, but hard working honest family woman. Hansu, the yakuza (Japanese gangster) is attracted to this classic Korean woman. We loved seeing Sunja negotiating with the pawnbroker to sell her watch, and repay the debt for Yoseb. She was tough and determined. Her marriage to Isak saves her, but results in her living in Japan.
There are a number of marriages in the story, and the women play a key role. Parent child relationships are key in this book too, with a lot of emphasis on education for the next generation. The sacrifice of the parents to build a future for their children, is a classic migrant tale. Some of these relationships are challenging, such as Etsuko and her wayward daughter Hana. The challenge of keeping families together grows as the young generation becomes more mobile.
The themes identified by Min Jee Lee are forgiveness, loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, faith. Forgiveness was one we could identify. Noa for instance was unable to forgive his mother that his biological father was Hansu. He wanted to be Japanese, to overcome his Korean heritage. However, he could not match his ideals with reality. He was imbued somewhat with the 19th century novels he studied at University. His reading tastes were similar to those identified by the author.
The notion of home was very important in the book. One of the two epigraphs was by Charles Dickens:
'Home is a name, a word, It is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration.'Home often being a construct, especially for these people who cannot go back to their own country. A number of characters in the book had returned to North Korea, but were not heard off again; the worst was feared. The fate of immigrants is to try and create a home in an alien environment.
We wondered how the Japanese would see the book. In Japan the acknowledgement of Korean comfort women was very controversial, so acknowledgement of the poor treatment of Korean citizens would be unlikely. Citizen registration for 'Koreans' in Japan continued til 1993.
Title : Pachinko: life like the game, looked fixed, but really chance and it's stacked against you. It's interesting that gambling is technically illegal in Japan, but the Pachinko Parlours get around this by offering prizes which can be exchanged elsewhere for cash. Pachinko parlours and associated businesses are one of the few ways Koreans can get ahead. And most of the family end up working or being supported by this shady business. Kim collects rents for Hansu, who describes him as 'clean wrapper for a filthy deed.'
So there was a lot to like about this epic novel, leading us into a world very few of us knew about. It was a life project for its author Min Jee Lee who has crafted a very readable and thoughtful novel, based on her interviews, research and family experience. It has one of the best opening sentences we have come upon:
'History has failed us, but no matter.'Highly recommended.