Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.

Human Acts by Han Kang

A historical-fiction on a vicious event in South Korean history.

4/5 stars.
Read from December 27, 2017 to December 31, 2017.
ebook, 171 pages.

After loving The Vegetarian by the same author, I was excited to read this book, especially after learning of its historical significance.

 “I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there.”

In 1979 South Korea’s dictator, Park Chung-hee, was assassinated. Park’s successor, Choi Kyu-hah, and major general, Chun Doo-hwan, noting that the country was now unstable, seized power through a military coup d’état on December 12, 1979, and enforced martial law. After years of suppression under Park’s regime, this shift in power allowed for a revival in the democratic movement.  The Gwangju Uprising took place between May 18-27th, 1980.  On the morning of May 18th, around 200 students gathered in protest at the Chonnam National University in protest of its closing under martial law. By that afternoon the uprising and conflict broadened to 2000 participants where they were met with a staggering military force. Soldiers were reported to have beaten protestors and eventually opened fire on them, initiating a week-long bloody battle. On May 27th, the military regained control.

A paratrooper clubs a man arrested during anti-government demonstrations in Gwangju on 20 May 1980.
A para-trooper beating a man, 1980. From The Korean Times – May 19, 2015

An estimated 606 people died in the clashings but there is no generally accepted number or statistic on the exact amount.  While the movement failed in making an immediate change over South Korea’s oppressive regime at the time it, the event has been contributed as a major factor in South Korea’s move to democracy in June 1987.

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Photo from Hankyoreh – Aug 25, 2017.

This book follows a cast of revolving characters that are in Gwangju during this tumultuous time. Opening with a boy searching for the body of his lost friend through the mass of dead bodies from the recent student uprising. Rows upon rows of bodies in makeshift coffins line a school gymnasium. The bodies are rotting as they have not yet been claimed by family members.  Another character is a dead soul looking for its body and unravelling the moments that led up to its death.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered – is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?”

The story is shocking and visceral, carrying the same haunting tone as The Vegetarian. This story, however, is less personal as it aims to embody the struggle of not just one person but of an entire nation trying to reshape its identity.  I enjoyed the majority of the characters and the encompassing stories and have since done some research to fully appreciate the scale of this incident. However, this book did not grab me and haunt me the same way The Vegetarian did. Thankfully, the writing is still exquisite, delicate but also brutal, and the story is of paramount importance to South Korean history. Additionally, the translation is exceptional and makes you feel like nothing is emotionally remiss or lost in translation.

The author, Han Kang, was born in Gwangju (both parents are writers as well) and she was 9 years old when, with a stroke of luck, her family left Gwangju for Seoul just 4 months before the uprising. This story is her testament to the event and the place where she grew up.

“That fact became a kind of survivor’s guilt, and troubled my family for a long time. I was twelve when I first saw a photo book produced and circulated in secret to bear witness to the massacre. ” – Han Kang, The White Review, March 2016

If you like historical fiction, fabulous writing, deep characters with a rich story, then you need read this book.