Ryan Jeffrey Ditto Tiedemann’s Postmodern 21st Century Review of Important Works in the Greater Pantheon of English Literature: Pachinko

Ryan Jeffrey Ditto Tiedemann’s Postmodern 21st Century Review of Important Works in the Greater Pantheon of English Literature: Pachinko

Ryan Tiedemann, Staff Writer

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage” –  Min Jin Lee, Pachinko

You enter a store, hoping to purchase something relatively unimportant. The clerk behind the counter conjures a welcoming smile and offers to help. As you leave, he returns to the cash register, hoping there’s enough to feed his children for the week. This scene plays out, over and over again. Life is an endless barrage of people, each of whom has their own goals and hardships, failings and successes. “Pachinko,” an acclaimed novel by Min Jin Lee, embodies this fact to an incredible extent.

The story takes place in East Asia from 1910 to 1989, spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, World War II, as well as Korea’s independence and subsequent civil war. “Pachinko” follows five generations of a Korean family as they live through the aforementioned geopolitical conflicts. This family lives in the rural, Korean island town of Yeongdo. The daughter Sunja, after becoming pregnant illegitimately, moves to Osaka, Japan. The final location of the story is Tokyo, Japan, where the ever growing cast of characters enter the modern world. “Pachinko” is by no means a heartwarming novel, but deeming it a tragedy seems just as egregious. 

Lee constructs a snapshot into history with her syntax, prioritizing detail and consistency over vagueness and abstract meaning. This style works incredibly well with historical fiction; by the end of “Pachinko” I had become significantly more educated on the history between Korea and Japan. During the Japanese occupation, Koreans were treated terribly, especially those who lived in Japan. Each generation depicted in “Pachinko” struggles with this situation, facing prejudice in different, but unanimously awful, forms. Their experiences range from being bullied in school to being tortured for protesting, from facing verbal degradation to being used by a supposed business partner for Korean connections. 

The novel is best understood through the gambling game after which it is named. Pachinko is a combination of pinball and a slot machine. Players input small balls they purchase, and occasionally one such ball will enter a small hole, which activates a slot machine that can yield an extremely large number of additional balls. These can then be exchanged for prizes and/or cash. The game is extremely easy to rig; most players recognize that fact. And yet, they continue to play anyway. The characters in the novel are the same as those sitting at these gambling machines (hence the title). They keep trying, knowing life is rigged against them but nevertheless hoping to be the one who inevitably hits the jackpot. Why stop when you have no other options? Whether they do eventually achieve this success is up for you, dear reader, to decide.

The esteem I hold this novel at is incredibly high. Not only does it educate you about history, Lee constructs a believable and engaging story, with characters you want so badly to succeed. I would give “Pachinko” a 9.5/10, on a scale where 0/10 is a DHS hallway pass and 10/10 is every novel in a foreign language before it’s translated for the reader.