Claire, an ethnic Korean grad student from Switzerland, arrives in Tokyo to escort her grandparents on their first visit to Korea since they left to escape the Korean War. They run “Shiny”, the somewhat down-at-heel pachinko parlor of the title. This trip takes a few weeks of preparation and to help fill the time, Claire signs up to tutor 12-year-old Mieko in French.
Given that Elisa Shua Dusapin’s debut Winter in Sokcho won the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature, The Pachinko Parlour comes with high expectations. It doesn’t disappoint.
At one level, the novel is an exploration of the relationships between four women at different stages of life: Mieko, Claire (who’s just turning 30), Mieko’s middle-aged French-teacher mother and Claire’s octogenarian grandmother. But the novel is also intrinsically atmospheric, permeated by vague, or not so vague, discomfort rather that mere disquiet: physical—rooms are hot, stuffy and close, the weather is often oppressive—and emotional. Claire’s relationship with her grandparents is awkward: “I feel overwhelmed. Their lives begin and end with the pachinko parlour …” Inter-generational communication is made more difficult by language:
I used to be able to speak Korean but I lost it when French became my main language. My grandfather used to correct my mistakes, but not any more. We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We never speak in Japanese.
Claire’s mother had escaped to Switzerland; her father is an organist popping between “Porrentruy, Zürich, Rheinau, Solothurn, Zollikon, Fribourg”. Asia has been left behind. There’s a boyfriend of sorts back in Europe, Mathieu, who actually speaks Korean. Her grandparents, especially her grandmother, exhaust her and confuse her. Claire’s strained excursions with Mieko to Disneyland and Heidi’s Village fare little better. Mieko’s family life is also complicated; sometimes she seems 12 going on 25.
Much of this discomfort is expressed and made palpable through food, which never quite seems to agree with Claire, disgust often rising to the surface:
I look down at my tart. A single raspberry glistens atop a lump of whipped cream. Compact and rubbery-looking. I pick up my knife, cut the tart into sections and start eating. It tastes fatty. I spit it out into my napkin. The raspberry stares up at me, still intact, coated in a film of jelly.
Disagreeable salmon and oysters extend to wider imagery of fish: trains look to Mieko like fish, Claire stretches “out on the bed, arms and legs spread, like a starfish”, on the bus, Mieko “sticks her mouth against the window, making loud sucking sounds”, like a “cleaner fish”, she says.
Dusapin is laconic and The Pachinko Parlour is short, more novella in size than novel, almost short story-like in the tightness of the writing, yet the plot unrolls slowly. Claire is unmoored—“Ever since I came to Japan I’ve felt drained of all energy”—and drifts directionless.
The French title, Les billes du Pachinko, refers to the metal balls, rather than the parlor, and seems to express the underlying metaphor better. Neither the pachinko balls nor the player has much agency to affect the outcome, yet small adjustments can sometimes significantly, if perhaps randomly, affect the result.
The only control a player has over the machine is to adjust the force at which the balls are ejected by slowly turning a knob that fits into the palm of the hand. The knob turns both ways.
That might describe Claire and her life.
Readers who know Winter in Sokcho will find much that is familiar, and not just the efficiency of language and mastery of observant detail. There is the similar linguistic and cultural dislocation, an emphasis on food and seafood in particular, and the intergenerational awkwardness. But The Pachinko Parlour is darker and even more ambiguous.
The original French has been cleanly rendered in English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Enough of the original is available online to compare: Higgins has impressively maintained Dusapin’s unique voice. Dusapin has a third novel out in French, Vladivostok Circus: something to look forward to, albeit with impatience.