A few weeks ago, I heard an author named Min Jim Lee interviewed on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show. Could that be the attorney I used to work for? Yes, it was. We had a warm reunion at her reading at the KGB Bar. Then I read her book. “I always knew you’d do something great!” I told her, and she has.
Pachinko 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 some 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, though there are differences between the two situations. Lee’s universal message is that 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 reason at all other than atavistic ego.
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 she covers all bases. Her knowledge of the two 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 is rich with detail, perception, understanding, and conscience.
The masterful writing style is transparent, skillful, manages time and language seamlessly, including the insertion of Korean terms which become familiar as the story progresses. 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.Tags: book reviews