My former boss, Min Jin Lee (from the time when I was a legal secretary and she was a lawyer) has written a book that is being widely appreciated, Pachinko. It is an excellent read from cover to cover. The characters come alive, the plot is sturdy and subtle, and the writing is incisive.
It is about Koreans in Japan. If you are Korean or Japanese, you probably know a few scraps of this story, but aside from the occasional newspaper article or television report about “comfort women,” for example, I knew little of the enmity of the two countries. How odd that we lump them together in our minds when they are such deeply sworn enemies! Pachinko did not leave me chastising myself for ignorance though, it left me grateful for the insight.
Since I was neither Korean nor Japanese, I read this as a cautionary tale. I am American, and inside America, we have the African population and the Native American population who have been treated as cruelly and hypocritically as the Koreans in Japan, not to mention the Italians, the Jews, the Irish, and our most recent targets, Muslims and Hispanics. The comparison is not always apt – there are a lot of differences between America and Korea/Japan, and it behooves us to take the time to note them. In the end, human beings have an irrational need to feel better than others, and that has caused us no end of suffering for no good reason.
When you have been callously mistreated, you have several choices – jump lemming-like off a cliff, outwit your rivals at their own game, or stay so far below the radar that nobody notices you. I doubt that Min Jin Lee began her book as a didactic exercise in tolerating prejudice and cruelty – there is way too much humanity in it for that, but we can use it to examine our own reactions to injustice. Her knowledge of both cultures is deep, and whenever a person gets to know another person deeply, enemy or friend, it is impossible to view them without at least a grain of compassion. Her story has bountiful detail, perception, understanding, and conscience, besides allowing us to know several people deeply. They are fictional, but does that matter?
I haven’t written much about the writing style because its transparency, skill, management of time and language, including the insertion of Korean terms which become familiar as the story progresses, is masterful. Don’t worry. You won’t put it down.
Lee is also a wonderful reader of her own work, and if you have a chance to hear her at a venue near you, don’t pass it up. She is a person of massive intelligence and humor.