Pachinko’s very first words are…
“History has failed us, but no matter.”
Who is the speaker? Is she one of the main characters? Is she the narrator? Or is she the author, Min Jin Lee? Personally, I think it makes the most sense if this is the author’s aside: a statement even beyond the scope of the narrator, because, as one reads along, there is no one omniscient narrator.
So, what does this opening line mean? There are so many ways to interpret what “History has failed us…” means — possibly showing the brilliance or ambiguity of this aside and its connection to the larger whole. Thus, I will start with its subordinating clause: “…but no matter.” What spunk and audacity! An entire discipline, in fact, the discipline of remembering and understanding the past has failed these people, whoever they are, but no matter. Perhaps, for this author, telling these stories — fictional as they may be — is a refusal to quit, rather than just spinning interesting war-time stories. History has failed them because these are poor, abused Koreans in Japan during war-times, because these are women and children, because public pain is shameful and public shame is painful — probably, better left forgotten. But no matter. For Hoonie, Yangjin, Sunja, Isak, Noa, Mozasu, Yoseb, Kyunghee, and Solomon, being forgotten happens — an inevitable part of life — but no matter.
One of many things I love about this book is its “thick” description of women and their experiences. By “thick” I mean a detailed, non-reductionist, not-stereotypical, and not-one-dimensional, but varied descriptions that somehow cohere together without being frustrating. In short, the thick description seems to reflect life’s realities (caveat lector: I, of course, can only speak foolishly ignorant as a man who will never fully understand women’s experiences). Consider the following repeated refrain:
“A woman’s lot is to suffer.”
Nearly every woman with enough narrated time in Pachinko has said this. Sometimes, it was prescriptive: this will be your unavoidable burden. Other times, it was descriptive: this was my unavoidable burden. Additionally, it was said with hopeless abandonment and as a source of pride and strength. Yes, suffering is horrible. But it is not wholly horrible — few things are in our complicated but beautiful world.