Over the past two years or so, I’ve seen this book everywhere– from high-end department store bookstores to airport kiosks– Pachinko was not a book that stuck out to me, at least, not enough to make me immediately want to read it. But I did mark this book down in my Goodreads account a half year ago. After thinking the book might be a good one to start on my way to Japan (as the story of Sunja and the many characters in her orbit eventually takes the reader), I finally picked it up.
I don’t know how to start off other than by writing: this story was extremely heart-wrenching and uncomfortable to read. Page after page tells the story of Sunja and her family during the period from the early 1920s, beginning with the Japanese occupation of Korea and ending in the 1960s with Japan’s imminent defeat during WWII by Allied Powers. I found the story to be difficult to read due to the repeated battering each character endured and suffered, dealing with themes of starvation, rape, religious persecution, suicide, patriarchy and racism to name a few. About halfway through the book, what really got to me were glimmers of hope the characters seemed to almost grasp, but then were consequently squashed somehow or another by forces out of their control.
What you think is a story about Sunja, who makes what she believes to be a trans-generational sacrifice by marrying a man who is not the father of her unborn child, but who promises to keep this secret and take her as his wife, turns out to not be so clear cut. A mistake she made when she was in her early teens will haunt not just her, but the rest of her family, until the last page of the nearly 500 page book. The narrative caught me off guard– when I thought Lee might dedicate more to an event that occurred, she left the reader with little explanation. Yet strangely, at certain points, I felt that the examination of certain events or characters was extraneous. In attempting to reflect on why she omitted certain details yet lavishly explained others, perhaps in all it is a feature her character’s lived reality as second-class citizens in a country Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in. They know what they know, and don’t ask questions, simply due to fear.
If this book was entirely fiction, I might not have finished; or it might have taken me much much longer. This book is historical fiction– I reminded myself that each event was someone’s lived reality lifted from the mortal world onto the pages. This thought is what kept me going but what also wore me down.
I visited Korea in the fall of 2017 and much to my dismay, I felt Seoul was just a carbon copy of any other East Asian metropolis– more specifically somewhere between a flashy fashion-forward Tokyo and a congested, new-money Beijing. I am not exaggerating when I say almost every young woman in Seoul looked like a copy of each another– pearl colored skin, long eyelashes, slim noses, a cropped hairdo and their boyfriends, usually a little on the heavy-side with their signature Korean male haircut, in tow. These couples were everywhere, from the streets of Seoul to seafood markets of Seoraksan. On the bus ride to Seoraksan, I was stunned how poor much of the countryside looked to be– tarps and corrugated tin roofs covering shack-like structures, worn-down machinery, and many older people working in the fields. Seemed a lot like China’s countryside, where the average person lives well below the means of their urban counterparts. In my imagination, I always thought Korea and Japan were in the same boat- historically, culturally and religiously divergent from China, and more similar to one another. But I began thinking about how Japan was never colonized by another nation looking to exploit resources and control people. They were the colonizers- Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, Singapore, Malaysia, Austronesia and numerous other places in South East Asia. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910, a fact not visible to tourists– but nevertheless still a painful and relevant fact that Lee drove home in Pachinko. When I view Korea in light of the fact it was occupied by Japan, the site of the Korean War and other conflicts between Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Americans, my initial judgement feels ill-informed and wrong. In considering the past century and how many people suffered at the hands of just a few egoists’ political ambitions, it makes me wonder how life can be so unjust.
And that’s just it; Sunja lives an unjust life. No matter how many sacrifices she makes to right the wrong, she can’t.