Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A play with identity and destiny
This is not a book review.
What goes into your mind when you pick up a book from a dusty shelf of your favorite bookstore?
The first thing that you probably see is the spine. It’s your first impression of the book. And if the name, in its well-designed font, stands out then you slide your fingers through its length, then you pull it towards you from its place that is secured between two of its familiarly-odorous neighbors.
You would think that it is you who chooses your next read.
I beg to differ.
I think it is the book that chooses you, and not the other way round.
I will even go to such lengths to declare that this whole ritual of you choosing a spine and the spine calling you is nothing but a play of destiny.
It is a daunting task trying to unpack all the nuances of Pachinko in a couple hundred words because its intent and impact are much larger than any words I am able to write. And so, I won’t even try. But what I will write here is a story that I wanted to tell after reading this novel to completion.
From a flimsy surface level, Pachinko is a generational story of a Korean family living in Japan during and after Japan’s colonial capture of the Peninsula. But look deeper and you’ll find that it is about survival and the tenacity of human nature even in the direst situations imaginable. It is about family and love. About loss and belief.
However, despite these themes, I believe what Pachinko is really about is identity.
I tend to obsess over the first lines of a book and usually go back to them when I’ve completed reading in its entirety. And those treasured first lines are always what defines the story that will unfold itself in the next 500 pages. Pachinko starts with a small sentence, “History has failed us, but no matter.” It is an apt beginning, the significance of which is only understood at the end. Just like how Sunja is introduced in the novel.
We begin with Sunja even before she was born, and we end with Sunja as she continues her life beyond the pages of the novel. Somehow, Sunja is already alive in the story, even before her birth and after the pages have ended. She is the pillar that breathes life into the story and keeps the characters alive. Sunja’s story starts with how she identifies herself as a woman, and when destiny forces her to deviate paths and move from the comforts of her home to the poor possibilities of their colonial ruler, her identity, and that of her entire family is put to test. Both of her sons, Noa and Mozasu and her grandson, Solomon, try to understand their roots while they are growing up and even after they have reached adulthood, and thus their present and their future are affected by the uncertainty. Depending on where they are, even their names would be modified into different versions of their Biblical names. It is a sad thing when even your name — the basic yet your most singularly important identity — has to be revised depending on where your two feet stand. These people can’t even have that one constant in their lives — the fixature from their names.
Apart from these three, who I will come back to later, there is also a portfolio of the more steadfast characters in the novel. These are the Baek Isaks, Koh Hansus, Yumis, and the Kyunghees of the world, who remain level-headed even when life gives them the worst curveballs. For them, their personal identity remains their one true constant and they refuse to change the way they define themselves.
The theme of identity is so deeply discussed in the book — between the characters, and in between the lines in the story — that you can’t help but feel a sense of injustice towards this world that we live in. If people struggle to comprehend and accept what they are made up of — the blood of their parents and the careful nurture from their families — then, life becomes harder to live. Even those with the strongest of wills can lose the battle if they give up on the sense of their own perspective. And no other character exudes this sentiment more vitally than Noa. For Sunja, who is our pillar to the story, Noa is her pillar. But, destiny has a cruel way of giving someone their identities — their lives -, and as easily as it comes, of taking it away as well. Sunja, Hansu, Isak, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon are all connected by blood or a bond. More importantly, they are connected through the unstable nature of their identities. But most severely, they are connected from the ruse of destiny. The pieces of the puzzle only move closer to fit with one another when life pushes them in one direction, the one that they never intended to move towards but yet have to accept with open arms. And that’s where Pachinko comes in.
Sunja’s family struggles with defining themselves, as women, or as parents, as sons, or as citizens of a country. But eventually, all this struggle leads to one destination — an end game. Pachinko becomes the destiny of Sunja’s sons and grandson.
You can believe that Pachinko was a choice that they made for the future, by themselves and by assessing the hands that they were given in the past. But those hands were forced to begin with. So what choice did they actually have? As Pachinko becomes the goal to these men, or perhaps a solution to their problems, it eventually becomes their one identity. And there is no other choice but for these men to accept that.
Pachinko chose these men, just like Pachinko chose me as its reader.
After borrowing this book from a public library, I picked up a random literary postcard from my collection as my bookmark on which the quote from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was written, which read — Nothing makes a man so adventurous as an empty pocket. I wouldn’t know the significance of these words until I reached the end of the novel and then I would think to myself that it was fate that made me choose this book and this postcard. That I had no hand to play in this relationship that I have now built with his book.
The puzzle pieces that are scattered around the room seem to find their place automatically.