I wanted to write about The Pachinko Parlor, Elsa Shua Dusapin's story about an immigrant Korean community in Japan that runs Korean gaming parlors, because the novel so successfully reveals the long term effects of war on subsequent generations. Dusapin's approach to this weighty subject is refreshingly oblique, the narrative style and design so naturalistic and inviting that the story feels casual. It is a smooth and engaging read as the first-person narrator, a woman named Claire who is visiting her Korean grandparents in Tokyo, fills the hours of her empty days. She works as a French tutor and companion for a ten-year-old Japanese girl named Mieko who lives with her mother in another part of the city. Claire speaks Japanese, but she is most comfortable in her native French, having grown up in Switzerland where her Korean parents made a home so that her musician father could perform throughout Europe. She doesn't speak Korean, the only language her grandmother consents to speak, and we're told that her great grandmother cut out her tongue rather than be forced to speak the Japanese invader's language, so there is little chance for communication at home. Her grandfather runs the pachinko parlor adjacent to their living quarters and though he speaks Japanese, he is gone day and night. Claire's boyfriend speaks French and Korean, but he lives in Switzerland.
These layers of place and culture create a sense of absurdity that the reader feels on every page. The little girl she tutors is so shy and introverted that the efforts she makes to draw her out feel as fruitless as everything else, doing little to assuage our narrator's feeling of not belonging anywhere. At the job interview, Madame Ogawa, Mieko's mother, asks Claire if she likes yoga. "I tell her I don't know, I've never tried it. She nods her head slowly" (10). Clearly Madame Ogawa is disappointed, but Dusapin never tackles an emotion directly, a tactic that gives this novel its quiet, understated tone and reflects the narrator's forbearance.
For entertainment, Claire takes Mieko to Disneyland and a fake Swiss village where Heidi might have lived, places that exude a banal international identity, easily shrugged off. Everything, from the many rides at Disneyland, to the stops on the train line, has a countenance of sameness, except the Pachinko Parlor where strange things seem to converge. We are told it is the only occupation the Zainichi's, Korean immigrants escaping the Korean War, were allowed to pursue in a 1950's Japan where the labor market was closed to them. But the game involving a vertical board, metal balls, and a lever was the only form of entertainment available to the Japanese and by 1953 there were 400,000 of them. But soon, in Claire's eyes, even the parlor takes on the swirling blur of similitude.
That of course is the point. The narrator's emotional stasis, cut off from family and friends, lacking a cultural identity in a Japan that never welcomed her grandparents, infects everything she fills her days with. In Abbas' rhythmically sensitive translation, she floats in a beautifully rendered ennui as the images and sounds she methodically reports, leap out to grab the reader's attention. And what a strange collection of stimuli they are. Because Mieko's bedroom is in the concrete pit of an empty pool, the floor her bed sits on slopes to a drain. Madame Ogawa explains why this is the situation; it is an abandoned hotel and they are the only ones inhabiting it, but the reader, like the narrator, understands it as yet another absurdity. The Shiny, the name of the Pachinko Parlor next door that her grandfather runs, is filled with noise. Inside, there is the thunderous sound of tumbling metal balls; outside, it's the never-ending slogan a hawker shouts to attract customers: "Shiny, Shiny, day and night, shiny, Shiny, shining bright" (63). Sleep is impossible and for Claire, the only way to find peace is to contract an infection that clogs her ears.
What's remarkable about this slim, taut novel is the style. Dusapin's narrative style is so naturalistic, the reader lacks any awareness of authorial manipulation. The narrative design is never obvious; events pass, but nothing seems more important than anything else. I found this lack of authorial manipulation refreshing. It collapsed the narrative distance between reader and character, and perhaps it made me more receptive to the final scene. Two pages from the finish, I couldn't imagine how the story would conclude. And yet, remarkably, a dramatic ending does appear. It is pitch-perfect and wholly unexpected. And it is only by looking back that I discern the artfulness of a novel that keeps its intentions hidden. The Pachinko Parlor lacks bold gestures until the very end, but in its pages there is no uncertainty. The authorial hand that guides the reader is there, but it never shows off, it's never even conspicious.
Dusapin, Elisa Shua. The Pachinko Parlor. Trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Geneva: Editions Zoé, 2018; Rochester: Open Letter, 2022.