The Pachinko Parlour, by Elisa Shua Dusapin
It took me a few days to work out what I think of this novel. Like the modern Japanese fiction I have read (as yet, not a huge amount) this is very observational. And short. This is not, however, a Japanese novel. Elisa Shua Dusapin is a French-Korean writer living in Switzerland. She writes in French.
It is impossible for me to know what sort of tone or prose techniques were in the original book that don’t transfer in translation. Often, I feel like novels in translation have too much in common on the technical prose level, as if there was a Global English, produced by translators and market demands, as much as by the original prose.
Whether or not that is true, the tone of the translation is well-judged for this novel about a young woman stultifying in the inertia of a summer spent at her grandparents’ house. It is perhaps relevant that Dusapin has said, ‘I’m always translating my own words in my head. So, there’s a tension in my relationship as a writer to the French language. I don’t feel completely at ease in my own native language.’ The gaps that exist between languages and people of other languages come up on almost every page of this book.
The Pachinko Parlour is set in Tokyo, and Dusapin writes in a near-reportage style. Just as with the innocuous tone, there are a few expository sentences that lay out the economic or legal status of Japanese-Korean people or the role of pachinko parlours, and this seems to be targeted at a global audience. This is similar to the way some books are written to be filmed. It breaks our expectations of realistic fiction to have these asides dropped in, and it makes the book read, however briefly, like an article in the New York Times. (The same thing happens in Look Here.)
As someone with conventionally ambivalent (or, on bad days, hostile) views on the clumsy authorial interventions of the likes of E.M. Forster, I dislike this on principle. But it is wrong to dismiss a writing technique on principle. And Dusapin makes these interventions work, not just as reportage (who doesn’t like to learn from their fiction?) but also as part of her character’s moral progress. As all art has moral function, it is preferable for art to have serious moral purpose. Dusapin’s main character becomes, eventually, a moral example, having found a way through the circumstances she reports earlier in the novel.
No plot details will be given away here (house policy), especially because this is a short book with a very good ending. What I can tell you is that the reportage is patterned as explanatory observation. It is a novel of dual-nationality and the effect that has on identity. This book believes that learning about a culture involves learning about yourself, that no-one ever managed life properly without going out into the world, and the past, even if that means going further than the streets and relatives you are familiar with. Travel is the major, albeit sometimes subcutaneous, theme (travel here includes migration) and the book is a coming of age parable written as realistic fiction. Perhaps I should be less surprised than I am to find the ‘Choice of Life’ genre quite so alive and well. Isn’t that what Sally Rooney writes? Other people might complain that the main character is nearly thirty and that this is a symptom of modern culture and its problems etc etc. I doubt that sort of person will read this book though.
I don’t know enough to say definitively, but I imagine if this novel is available in Japan it would be read very politically, as a commentary on the limits of Japan’s liberalisation towards immigration and immigrants. The book is ambivalent, at best, about the extent of the cultural change Japan has achieved, but, as most novels of this type do, seems to resolve in favour of individual action. In this case, the moral is that we should not despise the way older generations made their moral choices — after all, how much choice did they have? — but we should strive to make the best moral choices we can for ourselves. Sold!
Good fiction in translation is more likely to give you something to think about than an English language novel right now (with some honourable exceptions) and the week I spent pondering this novel was very worthwhile. Daunt Books is publishing quite a few interesting novels in translation and I will be reviewing more of them in the coming weeks.
I will say again that the ending is splendid and brings the whole thing into focus as a good ending should. I found The Pachinko Parlour complimentary to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and also Tokyo Story, a great classic of Japanese film, which I enjoyed recently.
The Pachinko Parlour, by Elisa Shua Dusapin
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