Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a good novel, fully deserving the rave reviews it has received thus far. But Pachinko is not merely good; it is important. Deep, literary exposition about Korea in English has only just begun in the last few years, but with books like Han Kang's The Vegetarian and Kim Young-ha's Your Republic is Calling You, there are now a solid stable of Korean novels in English that give a look into contemporary Korea. Yet Pachinko's subject—Zainichi Koreans—is a one that even novels originally written in Korean rarely broach, which makes Min Jin Lee's work not only good, but important. The hardship that these diaspora Koreans experienced because of Imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea, World War II, Korea’s division and the Japanese society’s discrimination is an important story that deserves to be told.
All this is to say: what follows in this post is not at all about the novel’s merits, but about my own peculiarities, and if any part of it seems like a criticism, it only comes from a place of love.
One peculiarity of mine is I greatly care about the mundane aspect of human lives. Indeed, I think the connotations that the word “mundane” carries—small, insignificant, unimportant—are exactly backwards. Most of our lives are spent in the mundane: eating, sleeping, fighting boredom at work, sitting in our room. Even if we experience the most dramatic day of our lives, the mundane returns the very next day as we must continue to wake up, eat, work, and sleep. Many find these things boring, but I do not—because like gravity, the mundane is what makes our lives possible by keeping us on the ground.
I deeply believe that the mundane, in fact, must be the most important aspect of our lives. Our everyday is not merely white noise that fills the gap between the exciting events worth remembering. What we eat, how we sleep, what we put in our homes, how we entertain ourselves—these are the most important things of our lives, for the simple reason that they are most of our lives. The expanded version of this proposition is how I understand history as well: the most important things in history is how people spent their mundane hours, eating, working and living. The events that are usually considered historically important—like a war, for example—are so only insofar as they have the power to radically and massively alter the shape of those mundane hours.
This is one of the reasons I rarely read fiction. Why read made-up stories, when there is so much fascinating mundane to learn about? The few fictions that I do find interesting are the huge tomes that relentlessly focus on the mundane. For me, the best part of Les Miserable was Victor Hugo’s 15,000 word description of the Paris sewers, so vivid that as you are reaching the story of Valjean carrying Marius through the sewer, you would marvel at the majesty of its architecture even while wincing from its smell. Pak Kyongni’s Land, a massive 16-volume epic about Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century, was an unstoppable read for me because of Pak’s placement of all the mundane things in the small town of Hadong—not only minor characters, but also every animal and plant that makes an appearance—serves to push the story forward with a greater weight than a simple succession of dramatic events could possibly do.
(More after the jump.)
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