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The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Elisa Shua Dusapin was born in France and raised in Paris, Seoul and Switzerland. She writes in French about Asian settings. Her one previous novel, Winter in Sokcho, won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2021, as well as prizes in her native France.

Sokcho is a tourist town in the north of Korea. In winter it is bleak and frozen and provided a perfect setting for her novel. In a book with few characters, it had a major role to play as both setting and mood. For this her new novel, we shift to Japan but still follow a Korean theme. The narrator’s grandparents fled from Korea fifty years before and settled in Tokyo. Much of Dusapin’s second novel is concerned with the possibility of those grandparents making a return visit to Korea. The looming unease and mixed emotions taint the present.

One of the recurring themes in the novel is about otherness. Claire, our narrator, is teaching French to a Japanese child, while remaining a Korean speaker with her grandparents. In many ways these older characters have remained on the fringes of Japanese society, clinging to the language of home and never integrating fully into Japanese society. Here Claire talks about her grandparents:

Looking at them I feel overwhelmed. Their lives begin and end with the pachinko parlour. The only social interactions they have are to do with exchanging balls for trinkets: one hundred balls, a bottle of water; one thousand balls, a bar of chocolate; ten thousand balls, an electric razor; no balls, a pack of chewing gum, the consolation prize. They don’t socialise at all with 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.

Another theme is loneliness and abandonment – all the characters spend too much time alone or escaping. This feeling is helped by the settings – Claire’s pupil Mieko lives with her mother in an abandoned hotel, where she had taken to sleeping in the bottom of the empty swimming pool. This bizarre location unsettles the reader and adds the sense of isolation. Even a visit that Claire plans for Meiko – to Heidi’s village, a recreation of the children’s story set in Switzerland but transplanted to Japan as a theme park – adds to the bizarre, unsettling nature of the book.

Central to the novel is the Pachinko Parlour run by Claire’s grandparents. It is called Shiny. A type of gaming arcade which was developed to avoid some of Japan’s gambling laws. Players compete to win small metal balls which can then be exchanged for goods rather than money. Such gaudily decorated parlours are mostly run by Korean exiles. Like symbols of their lost homeland. We gradually learn more about the link to the Pachinko Parlour:

I knew almost nothing about my grandparents’ past. They didn’t talk about it with me or my mother. I knew they’d come to Japan by sea in 1952 to escape the civil war in Korea when they were eighteen and nineteen years old, my grandmother pregnant with my mother. They’d heard rumours of a flourishing industry in Japan, run by Zainichis. There was nothing in the way of entertainment in those post-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.

I love this description by Claire of what she sees from her window – again we feel the isolation within everything she says:

The days are beginning to draw in. The sky is dark by seven in the evening. I lie on the floor and gaze out of the window. Woman’s calves, men’s shoes, heels trodden down by the weight of bodies borne for too long. Salarymen. I can tell from the rigid gait, the uniform. Footsteps of people in a hurry, people dragging their feet. I turn away, try to block them out, but then I see their shadows file past on my bedroom wall, distorted, magnified in the beam of the streetlight. Sometimes a taxi parks in front of the window, the driver asleep, forehead resting on the steering wheel.

Sadly, this book was not as successful for me as Winter in Sokcho where I loved the silent looming city in the winter. Here the characters were a little too remote and their feelings not as interesting for the reader.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson



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