Elisa Shua Dusapin’s enigmatic and mysterious Winter in Sokcho was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2020, so another novel from her was certainly exciting news, and now I’m glad to say that The Pachinko Parlour is also excellent.
Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.
Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. However, since they are Zainichi Koreans, the grandparents were given the license to run a pachinko parlour, a kind of a casino where the mode of exchange relies on barter and not currency, lending the novel its name (“Pachinko isn’t seen as gambling because the balls are exchanged for sweets, toilet paper, bottles of water, toothpaste”).
They’d heard rumours of a flourishing industry in Japan, run by Zainichis. There was nothing in terms of entertainment in those pot-war days: no cinema, no theatre. The black market was everywhere, with cigarettes the most prized commodity. Koreans were locked out of the Japanese labour market by virtue of their nationality. So, they invented a game: vertical tray, metal balls, a lever. And cigarettes in exchange for balls.
Claire, meanwhile, has grown up in Switzerland, occasionally visiting Japan to meet her grandparents. Claire’s parents lead busy lives and are never around – the father is a sought after musician constantly on tour accompanied by Claire’s mother, and the communication between mother and daughter is often through emails.
But for Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. Claire’s efforts to discuss the details of their journey meet with a certain modicum of resistance, her grandparents skirt the issue and the discussion inevitably gets postponed.
For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. Cooped up in the basement room, the narrow slit window offering a view of the streets and people hurrying off somewhere, Claire’s isolation and tedium is only heightened in the sweltering apartment.
Noises drift in from the street. Car exhausts, heels on the tarmac, and all night long, the sandwich-board woman’s monotonous chant, relayed on playback through a loudspeaker.
The window is at street height. Lying on the ground, I can see people’s legs as they hurry past, heading for the narrow streets of Uguisudani, where the love hotels are.
On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French. Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way. Mieko’s family life is also weighed down with problems – Henriette and Mieko reside in a makeshift apartment in an abandoned hotel due to be redeveloped soon, their burden amplified by an aura of uncertainty, their lives in a state of flux.
Mieko’s insistence on being taken to see the pachinko parlour is as palpable as Claire’s desire to push her grandparents towards revisiting Korea, but will both succeed in getting what they want?
The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families.
For instance, Claire is not alone per se. She has her grandparents for company, she keeps in touch with her parents and back home in Switzerland she appears to be in a steady relationship with Mathieu, who is very encouraging of her attempts to reunite her grandparents with their homeland. And yet, one gets the sense that she is adrift and lonely. Physically her boyfriend is far away, she rarely sees her parents given their hectic touring schedules and her relationship with her grandparents often seems tenuous; language, particularly being an issue. Mieko is a lonely child too as is Henriette; the two are often not on the same wavelength, but Mieko becomes attached to Claire, a kinship however precarious.
The theme of identity, uprootedness and living in exile is particularly heightened in Claire and her grandparents’ circumstances. Having never been to Korea, Claire can’t speak Korean. She is fluent in French but can’t converse with her grandparents in that language. Japanese seems the obvious choice but not an option.
We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We never speak in Japanese.
The grandparents are isolated as well since they largely keep to themselves. Their existence does not extend beyond the pachinko parlour and they haven’t entirely embraced Japan despite being residents in the country for many years.
They don’t socialise at all with the other Zainichis, Japan’s Korean community: exiles, people who came, as my grandparents did, to escape the Korean war, and others, who were deported during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
The Pachinko Parlour is also about how past histories, both public and deeply personal, can define our lives. In Claire’s case, her grandparents’ displacement fuelled by war has led to subsequent generations losing touch with their roots. Mieko’s case is more personal and something of an enigma; an absent father has thrown her family life into turmoil with mother and daughter staring at an unreliable future imbibed with a feeling of all they have lost.
Dusapin is great at capturing the fraught mental and emotional states of her characters, their impression of being either stuck or at the cusp of a momentous change. The sense of place that was so evocative in Winter in Sokcho vividly comes alive in The Pachinko Parlour too – the oppressive heat of summer in Tokyo (“The city is suffused with light, Mount Fuji drained of colour. The sun’s last rays filter through the spaces between buildings”), the smoky haze suspended like a curtain over the city’s skyscrapers, muggy rains, the lethargy and disorientation that seeps into Claire who is sort of caught in a no-man’s land mentally.
Food, such a vital feature in Winter in Sokcho, is also symbolic in The Pachinko Parlour, in the way it subtly depicts a certain emotion or the frailty of her characters’ minds. For instance, the kwabaegi (a twisted doughnut) signifies the bond between Claire and Mieko; the pile of bento boxes or takeaway meals piling up outside their home distresses Claire because it indicates the deteriorating health of her grandmother who in the past was instrumental in teaching Claire traditional home cooked Korean dishes. On Claire’s infrequent visits to Mieko’s home, Henriette serves her elaborately prepared crabs and oysters because it conjures up images of a life she once shared with her now absent husband.
I thought back to the hours we used to spend together cooking, making pancakes, soups and stews: eomuk and soegogi-jin, kimchi and miyeok-guk; and sweet dishes like honey ice cream and hotteok.
Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.