0699 | Pachinko | Min Jin Lee


My word this is a mess of a book. It’s a mess of a story, it’s a mess of characters, and most shockingly for me, it’s a literal mess: it wasn’t edited by anyone who is remotely familiar with Japanese culture despite almost all of it taking place in Japan.

I picked this off the shelf for our last quarterly visit to our local Book Corner bookshop. It appealed because I spent six years living in Japan and then the subsequent four living in South Korea. You could say that I’m fairly familiar with the languages, culture and history of the two countries. So, I thought, a book placed in both would be a fascinating trip down memory lane.

It didn’t get off to a bad start. The saga (and it needlessly is one) lasts almost as long as it took Lee to write the novel beginning on an island off the south coast of Korea.

There, a family eke a living as best they can, and Lee does a reasonable job showing that the average Korean family lived a hand to mouth existence under the Japanese occupation.

The novel really starts with Sunja who falls prey to the charms of Hansu, a Korean tied to the Japanese mafia. When the inevitable happens and she confesses her pregnancy to him, he does the honourable thing and tells her that he’s already married and has children back in Japan and that he can put her up in a house there and care for her every need. She’s appalled and refuses his offer. This sets up an entire lifetime of back and forth between these two which lasts the rest of the novel.

Now, had Lee put all her efforts into Sunja the novel wouldn’t have been half bad and she might have risked creating one of literature’s great heroines. But Lee is determined to muddy the waters with a million others some of whom have side stories that are, to the reader, utterly mystifying including one poor character who ends up participating in dogging. I kid you not.

By the time Sunja has married a pastor who offers to save her honour on his way to settle in Japan, the scene has become cluttered with others’ lives and the novel’s focus starts to move to Sunja’s children Noa and Mozasu.

WW2 inevitably makes its presence felt but it’s almost as if it doesn’t really happen. I mean, this was the most epic event in the modern history of Japan and yet it kind of plays out in the background. Lee has everyone moved out of Osaka by Hansu pulling strings so that they spend the wartime years isolated on a farm. Lee realises a bit late that the war should make some impact on the family and so has one of the adult males toddle off to Hiroshima for a job. It all feels a bit underthought, to be honest.

The novel crashes on into the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s and peters out on the verge of the 90s. Despite this swathe of history, the novel never seems to really go anywhere purposeful. More characters are introduced and discarded. Not one is developed with real depth, and the novel is littered with linguistic issues that are going to leave the unitiated bewildered and the expert banging the page in frustration.

For starters, there’s the title. If you don’t know what pachinko is, you will get no explanation whatsoever until page 450 where Lee deigns to give you a hint:

Why did her family think pachinko was so terrible? … Mozasu created spaces where grown men and women could play pinball for money.

Oh, OK. Pinball. Right. Now I get it.

Pinball? Seriously? Does this look like pinball to you?

Forget pinbal. The slot machine is probably the closest cultural equivalent, but it is a very, very distant cousin of pachinko, a game which has cultural overtones in Japan which no slot machine is going to ever rival anywhere on earth.

The truly bizarre thing about the opacity of the title is that 37 pages after she gives you the first hint of what pachinko might be, Lee actually has one of her characters reflect that:

In America [sic], no one even knew what pachinko was.

p. 487

Oh boy. Incredible. Having given no description for nearly 500 pages there’s an admission that no one will have a clue what your novel is about. So, do we then get a description? Nope.

The good news is that Lee could have called her novel Banana Rhapsody. Apart from a main character running a pachinko parlour, there is no significance whatsoever in the novel’s title. So very much could have been made of it. As I said, pachinko has such a vivid and infamous culture associated with it that a novel that truly unlocked the world of pachinko to the west would be a stunner. Lee’s not up to it.

But there’s more. Bearing in mind that there’s no glossary in a novel full of Japanese and Korean language, here’s a sample of the mysteries that await the average western reader:

Each morning, Sunja walked to the police station and handed over three onigin made with barley and millet.

p. 173

Now, not only are these three objects a mystery to anyone not familiar with Japanese food and rice balls in particular, but you’d have a hard time trying to look it up because it’s a typo and should be spelled onigiri! Lee’s Googling readers get lucky though. There is in fact a restaurant in Tokyo called Onigin (presently closed) which specialises in onigiri. Maybe it was inadvertently named after this typo.

… she loved Yesu Kuristo, her god …

p. 258

That’s not how you render Jesus Christ in normal Japanese. It should be Yesu Kirisuto as any good Japanese Christian knows. There’s an obscure reading which is spelled that way but I didn’t come across it once during six years of Japanese churches.

Maji?” Goro said, laughing. “Is that right, officer?”

p. 277

Hmmm. What could maji possibly mean? Maybe it means “Is that right?” Good guess, but that’s the best you’re going to do.

Maji? Why? I have enough suits for this year and the next … “

p. 311

Oh, wait. Didn’t we see maji before somewhere? What did it mean 40 pages ago? I guess it means why now. Er… no, it doesn’t. This link might help.

“My name is Nobuo Ban desu.”

p. 364

The Japanese desu is loosely equivalent to the English is / are. In Japanese this sentence would literally be “My name Nobuo Ban is.” Putting is and desu in a sentence is superfluous. Not to mention that Lee does not put desu anywhere else in the book. Just in this one sentence.

The mother set out a discount-store tray brimming with teacups and wrapped biscuits from the conbini.

p. 411

Now you’ll be stuck. Jisho.org doesn’t list anything for conbini and that’s because it’s another typo. It should be konbini. The Japanese romaji script system doesn’t use the mora co. Whereso this error? Well, convenience store is konbiniensu sutoa in Japanese which is shortened to konbini in everyday speech. Whatever work experience gopher edited this just left the c on because it was more, er, convenient I guess.

… Mama told me that your girlfriend-o is a nice girl …

p. 505

Eh? The suffix -o is only added to this one word in the entire book. Yet Japanese speakers will always add an -o to the consonant d because that’s how Japanese works. Yes, gaarufurendo is a word trendy Japanese speakers use to render the English term girlfriend, but why add -o to it at all if your characters all speak English for your readers?

Tsugoi, Solomon. How amazing.

p. 505

Yes, that does (kind of) mean amazing, but it’s sugoi, not tsugoi which means … well, nothing actually.

Hatsukoi was such a stupid idea to me until I met you.

p. 505

Nope. Not a clue. Even I had to look this one up. Hatsukoi turns out to mean “first love” and so you can see why, despite being upper intermediate in Japanese and having lived there for six years, even I wouldn’t know this. But would any of her readers? Why introduce this obscure Japanese term just once in a 500-page novel?

And, yes, for the observant among you, well spotted. The last three were all on the very same page.

The editing mess isn’t limited just to language though. Try this:

“Just study,” Hansu had said. “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge – it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.” Hansu never told him to study, but rather to learn …

p. 304 – 305

Erm. Hansu never told him to study? Really. What about two sentences ago?

In the notes that follow the novel, after telling us that the original draft took her eight years, was binned and then started again, she admits “I don’t work very efficiently.” (p. 541)

You don’t say.

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