Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Min Jin Lee - Pachinko

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Author: Min Jin Lee
Title: Pachinko

I found this book on my Scribd app.  Scribd app is like a paid subscription to a library which allows you read several books at less cost. I don't have to buy individual books. However, the books on offer are not unlimited, unlike on Amazon where you can get a vast number of titles. I was pointed towards this by a book group on Twitter which goes under #TSBC or #TSBCWedReads run by @TSBookClub. People are asked about the books they are currently reading every Wednesday and one can pick up good tips there.

Pachinko is about a Korean family that migrates to Japan around 1930. Despite their best efforts they find they cannot integrate into Japan. The reason is not poor assimilation on their part.  They are kept apart from Japanese because of deep rooted discrimination against the Koreans.

The story starts in Korea in the picturesque little Island town of Yeongdo near Busan. Sunja is the young daughter of Hoonie and Yangjin. After her father dies, she is busy helping her mother run a boarding house that they inherited from Hoonie's parents. Her life is humdrum but comfortable. Hansu is a businessman whose eye falls on this wholesome young girl. Sunja becomes pregnant and when she tells Hansu about this, he reveals that he is married but offers to keep the girl in comfort.  Sunja is shocked to learn this and rejects him.

One of the boarders at Yangjin's boarding house is a Christian Minister called Isak who offers to marry Sunja to give her unborn son a family name. He is leaving for Osaka soon to join his older brother and his wife and takes Sunja along with him. Sunja's son by Hansu is called Noa who suffers deeply when he learns about his birth. Sunja and Isak have a son called Mozasu who first goes to work at a Pachinko parlour.

Life in Osaka is not easy with the Japanese breathing down their neck and looking down upon them. Many misfortunes befall them but they persevere. Despite being good, hardworking and honest, they find they cannot make a headway in mainstream Japanese life.  They are relegated to ghettos.  The family eventually makes their fortunes in Pachinko parlours which becomes a symbol of the kind of life allowed to them.

Sunja's sons and grandsons achieve academic success they are not allowed into white collar jobs. Noa tries to do it but only at the cost of his identity. He pretends to be a Japanese and cuts himself off from his family. Mozasu's son Solomon finds it hard to work in a proper office even though he holds an impressive degree from a good college. Despite their education and qualification they are elbowed out.

The plot outline looks dull and depressing. It is not a book full of merry happenings but there was never a dull moment. The story proceeds at a breakneck speed, often jumping years to avoid tedium. It was close to 700 pages but I could barely put it down and completed it in 2 days. Like the book I read before this, it was a fast read.

Especially in these days when Immigration has become such a bad word globally, it is important to rake up the issue of how the host nation treats its immigrants. Even though the immigrants work hard and are honest, doing jobs that are shunned by others, they are treated sub-par and are never allowed to integrate. Often they wind up creating their own communities within the host nation.  It seems horrific but is true. It goes against the very tenets of humanity.

The book spans decades from 1910 to 1989. It starts from Korea and ends in Japan. The early parts of the book, set in Yeongdo, are breathtakingly beautiful. The author takes care with her characterizations. The life of Sunja's parents is described in detail. Sunja's seduction by Hansu is again well etched, with the author going deep into how Sunja's mind works. Later, the descriptions are not as unhurried and beautiful and story is trotted forward without much detailing.  Of course, if the pace of the book had remained the same, it would have reached nearly double its size. It is reminiscent of the times also. The early part of the twentieth century was unhurried and slow, later life also became fast and shallow.

By all means pick up the book. Do not let the number of pages deter you, reader. They will fly by, I promise.


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