Reviewed: The Pachinko Parlour, Elisa Shua Dusapin (trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins), Scribe
‘I walk over to the picture window, look down at the station; a central spine, four walkways fanning out like limbs. A lizard lying in wait.’ One of the most striking things about The Pachinko Parlour, besides a style of writing that shines in quiet descriptions like this one, is how untethered and lonely all of its characters feel. Regardless of their centrality to the story, they seem to lead temporary, floating lives.
Claire is a Korean-Swiss woman who goes to visit her grandparents in Japan. She is about to turn 30 and spends the month of August in Tokyo, where they live, and in September plans to take her grandparents back to Korea for the first time since they left the country nearly 50 years ago. Her grandparents are zainichi, Koreans who migrated to Japan to escape the war that was unfolding in Korea in the 1950s. Young adults then, they are now nearly 90 years old and run the eponymous pachinko parlour.
Pachinko is a mechanical game similar to pinball or slot machines, where balls are loaded into machines by players who press a spring-loaded handle; the balls that fall into a catcher drop into a tray in front of the machine. The pachinko balls are then exchanged for items such as a bottle of water, chocolate bars or an electric razor, which are then swapped for money as a way of circumventing gambling laws. Koreans invented pachinko when they first came to Japan, and it is now still only those who are ethnically Korean who are exempted from the heavy tax imposed on these parlours. In a sense, the pachinko parlours are symbolic of the zainichi presence—an indication of an industriousness that comes with migrants setting themselves up in a new country, yet this association also silos them off from wider Japanese society. Today, pachinko parlours are still operated mostly by zainichi and their descendants.
Claire’s grandparents’ pachinko parlour, called Shiny, sits at the centre of the novel. Their apartment is located opposite it, and her grandfather, despite his age, goes to work there every day of the week. As the days pass, Claire notices the sandwich-board woman paid to advertise Shiny on the street, whose cry she can hear from their apartment: ‘Shiny and bright, shiny and bright, shiny, Shiny every night.’ She also notices Yuki, a pro player paid by her grandfather to stand outside Shiny each morning, solely to create the illusion of demand. As Claire continues to observe these characters, which include her grandparents, an unsettled atmosphere pervades. These turn up in some of the most unusual images in the novel—for example, when Claire and her grandmother wait for her grandfather to come home for dinner, she notes: ‘On the table, our three bowls make the shape of a face. My grandparents’, the two eyes; mine, the mouth, rounded as if in astonishment.’
While in Tokyo, Claire answers an ad to provide French tutoring to a student named Mieko. Mieko and her mother, Madame Ogawa, also known as Henriette, temporarily live in a former hotel. Mieko’s father, a designer of Japan’s shinkansen, has abandoned them. A sense of desolation surrounds Mieko and her mother’s world, which is further enhanced by the description of their surrounding environment. Mieko’s bedroom, a swimming pool, is described as follows: ‘The floor of the pit slopes gently down to a drainage hole. In one corner sits a single bed … Mieko sleeps here, for the time being.’
It is these descriptions of the external environment that give us a clue to the mental state of the characters. Elisa Shua Dusapin is able, through the excellent translation of Aneesa Abbas Higgins, to convey a sense of what each character may be feeling, not by focusing on their interiority but by reflecting it onto the environment around them. When Claire takes Mieko on a trip to Disneyland, she describes the parade thus:
Ariel, Cinderella, Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck file past, one by one, waving their arms in the air to the jolly music and lip-syncing the words to ‘Happiness is Here’ … On every face the same tightly stretched grin, the same vacant happy look …
This can be interpreted as a mirror image of the one-woman sandwich-board parade and its claim to shininess and brightness. In contrast to what the theme park is trying to cultivate, grimness instead suffuses the air at Disneyland—a raspberry tart is ‘compact and rubbery-looking’.
Amid these disjunctions, the sense of loneliness is perhaps best conveyed through the characters’ complications with language and communication; they frequently struggle with the limits of language/s. Claire, who was born and raised in Switzerland, used to be able to speak Korean when she was younger but lost most of it to French as she grew older. She had wanted to study Korean at university, but as it was not offered in Switzerland, took Japanese instead. The many layers of language that Dusapin’s characters simultaneously inhabit and are dislocated from reflect the complexity of their biographies and migrations.
Her grandparents moved to Japan from Korea; Claire’s mother left Japan to move to Switzerland; and Claire who was born there has come to Japan. While there, she speaks to her grandparents in a combination of simple English, basic Korean, gestures and facial expressions. Despite the fact that they are able to, they do not like speaking Japanese with her. Although the reason for this is never disclosed in the novel, we learn that it was illegal to speak Korean when Korea was under Japanese occupation. Claire’s grandparents now live and speak in the occupier’s language.
These knots show that national identity is not linear, and speaks to the nation-state as a mythical notion, particularly when so many people’s lives incorporate many movements across geopolitical borders.
Yet ideas of national identity do exist, if only to satiate the universal human need for belonging, which often results in demands for demarcation between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status. When Henriette asks Claire about her grandparents (‘Couldn’t they find work where they lived?’), it shows how her ignorance of Japanese history results in her inability to see Claire’s grandparents as truly belonging in Japan, or having a reason to be there at all. At another point in the novel, Henriette says to Claire, ‘You’ll never really be able to speak Japanese, will you?’ These remarks demonstrate how the rules for national belonging are extremely narrow when tied to arbitrary criteria such as linguistic ability and ethnicity. Through migration, forced or otherwise, it would be naïve to think that unbroken lines of heritage always exist in a nation.
Paradoxically, Henriette is fascinated with Switzerland and wants to send Mieko to school there. This obsession with Swiss culture becomes clear when we learn that Henriette herself went to university in Switzerland and is enamoured with it. Now a French teacher, her fascination with the country is symbolised by an eighteenth-century children’s book she owns, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, about an orphan girl who lives with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps.
Later, Claire takes Mieko to Heidi’s Village, a theme park just outside Tokyo, which Dusapin uses as a device to cast an inverted gaze on Western culture. At Heidi’s Village, European culture is on display and othered, with replicas of a church, town hall and Alsatian-style houses. A log cabin is described as ‘a single room with a wooden table on which artificial foods are arranged, with labels written in Japanese: “cheese”, “meat”, “bread”’.
It is refreshing to see this represented from the other side for once—this othering of Europe must be a mirror for how we in the West often view other cultures. Henriette’s fascination with Switzerland demonstrates that although the nation-state demands complete belonging, most of us do not completely belong. Many people often have multiple allegiances, which can be erased or unrecognised in simplistic nationalist discourses. Even adherents can’t maintain a strict national identity, for there are always other longings.
Unspoken longing, then, becomes the common thread that runs through the characters in The Pachinko Parlour—Claire’s grandparents, Mieko, Henriette and Claire. Dusapin’s skill is in her ability to vault these faltering longings into the air through the gestures of the characters and in the few words that they do say, so that it suffuses the atmosphere of the novel. It is an excellent reminder that for many of us, our longings remain unarticulated, sometimes even to ourselves. Higgins as translator does a remarkable job translating Dusapin’s French into an English that is restrained and economical, yet pregnant with what is left unsaid.
In a scene towards the end of the novel, Mieko tells Claire that she hadn’t communicated something clearly after a minor interaction: ‘You didn’t make yourself clear. […] Calearo […] Like your name. Calairo.’ These scenes occur frequently throughout the novel—characters experience trouble with communication whether due to linguistic barriers, cultural differences or generational ones. It can be argued that this struggle to communicate crosses national borders and is a common human experience. If communication remains a conflict between humans, it highlights that language itself cannot be the sole basis of belonging.
All the characters in The Pachinko Parlour—whether ethnically Japanese, zainichi or biracial—display different ways of belonging and longing that don’t rely on language, that often remain unarticulated because difficult to express; formed as they are by migrations, wars, geopolitical conflicts and interpersonal tragedies. Dusapin demonstrates that other ways of belonging can and do exist, where what is unsaid can be just as important and binding.
May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who lives in Prague. She is a former academic in anthropology, and is now a freelance writer and editor as well as founder of the Prague Writers Workshop. See <mayngo.net>.