There are books and then there are BOOKS. The difference being that one helps you pass time and the later makes you weep in gratitude for your ability to read and marvel at the human mind’s and heart’s ability to create literary masterpieces. Am I exaggerating? Maybe. But allow me to plead my case for Pachinko. The author, Min Jin Lee, has somehow created a cohesive narrative that covers more than eight decades, five generations and two wars in one 478 page wonder of a novel.
She has expressed history in the only way that is relevant, in how it affects the human experience. Yes, some people know that Japan invaded Korea. Yes, some people know that Koreans were forced to flee to Japan or chose to migrate in hopes of a better life.
But what does all this mean? How does all this have any value? It has value because regular letters that were written to parents cease without explanation. It has consequences because people are pushed to explore their new unwanted roles. Personal relationships are altered because the environment transforms the individual. The external force becomes so huge that it forces its way into the private and corrupts it. Each disappearance has to be acknowledged because the whole ceases to exist.
The book begins in Yeongdo, Busan, Korea with the declaration that the common folk are attempting to survive the changing political scenario. When you have been introduced to the personal history of Hoonie and his parents only then is the failure of the aristocratic and political class, the invasion of Korea by Japan is revealed.
In the beginning, it is expressed as an inconvenience. Till of course it grows throughout the book and engulfs their lives. The development is gradual but it is like watching a train crash. I would argue that it is worse because the accident is being analysed one victim at a time.
All the characters in the book have incredible agency. They have personalities that you love, relate with and root for. They are an incredible juxtaposition between who they are as individuals and what is their role in their family. I was especially thankful for the way that the female characters are written.
The words of Louis May Alcott in the book Little Women describe it in the aptest way, “Women..they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. And they have got talent and they have got ambition as well as just beauty…” Yangjin, Sunja, Khungee are actual players in the story, making and affecting the way the story goes. Actual players in their own lives. The backs on whom history is carried because they are the ones who are left behind as the remnants of war and as the vessel to carry stories in their survival.
This book is also a journey of accepting the self by realising that others will always try to define you. But they will only succeed if the self is not sure of itself. The way that violence, not just physical but mental and emotional is perpetuated by war is what is traced and retraced as well. Morality is questioned as well. There is in some sense an argument between a deontological thought of morality and a utilitarian thought of morality. Should you stick to the idea of being honourable even if it risks your well being or worse the well being of your family? Should your duty as a citizen surpass your duty to your family?
As you reach the end of the saga you reach the realisation that there is never an end to the war. It just transforms into how it is reflected in each generation, how it is carried by each generation. Min Jin Lee tries to end it on a positive note by showing that the characters have made peace with who they are and what has been done to them by surviving. But their perseverance leaves you unsettled, unnerved and indigent.