In mesmeric and evocative prose, rendered masterfully into English by translator Aneesa Abbas Higgins, author Elisa Shua Dusapin weaves a novel about familial loss and dislocation, and the fragile ties that hold us together, writes our contributor Emily Walters.
In crisp and captivating prose The Pachinko Parlour (Daunt Books Publishing) ruminates on belonging and disconnection, depicting the chasms that persist between even the closest of relatives. With intense viscerality, it is a novel that unfurls a painful question: what does it mean to feel extrinsic to those we love?
On the brink of turning 30, Claire has left Switzerland to spend the summer in Tokyo. As a polluted haze enshrouds the metropolis, she splits her time between teaching French to 12-year old Mieko, whose haunting bedroom is the drained-out swimming pool of an abandoned hotel, and striving to reconnect with her elderly grandparents, whose days are consumed by running their Pachinko parlour.
Claire’s grandparents would rather speak to no-one than speak Japanese. They are Zainichis, Japan’s Korean community of exiles: those who fled the Korean war and were deported during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Isolated and overwhelmed, their sole social interaction consists of exchanging Pachinko marbles for trinkets in their parlour, the Shiny. Whilst Mieko yearns for Claire to take her to play Pachinko, Claire is herself determined to help her grandparents travel to see their homeland once again. But with their memories of a formerly unified Korea, how can they return to a place that no longer exists?
Reading Elisa Shua Dusapin’s prose, rendered masterfully from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, is akin to the sensation of dipping your toes into seemingly warm water, only to be met with suddenly scorching heat. At once intimate and distant, the beguiling protagonist is an attentive observer, continually refracting the familiar through an uncanny lens; pinpointing sinister absurdities concealed within the banal. A piece of sugary donut becomes stuck between Claire’s teeth; in freeing it, she slices her tongue. The line between delight and discomfort is precariously thin.
In dwelling on what is lost in translation, we often overlook all there is to be gained. In a novel in which characters rarely converse in their mother tongue, the experience of reading a text composed in one language transposed through the veil of another intensifies its meditation on distance and difference. For Claire, who in learning French forgot Korean, languages are intrinsically connected to such a push and pull of loss and gain. With her grandparents, she speaks fragmented English, laden with laboured gesticulations. What she has learnt of their history has been relayed to her through the intermediary of a Korean-speaking friend. In helping Mieko to learn French so she can move to Switzerland, Claire is confronted with an imperfect mirror of her younger self.
Spare and delicate, every single word earns its place in Dusapin’s writing. Staccato sentences centre on small details, yet are potent with intensely vivid imagery – the depth achieved with such restraint is staggering. Claire’s grandmother has her hair dyed blue, only to furiously scrub the chemicals away in the sink, desperate to test their longevity. Trains sound like earthquakes, but resemble aquatic creatures. Mieko’s father left their home one day and never came back. There is an exquisite contrast between the text’s nebulous symbolism and its sharp form, which Higgins recreates with terse immediacy and beauty. Marguerite Duras is a palpable influence of Dusapin’s bending of grammatical rules, in the way minutiae unravel to decelerate our attention, through the unearthing of the subconscious and the mirroring of intrigue. This is realism, but experimental and unfamiliar.
Tension scintillates as images duplicate and interweave. Madame Ogawa, Mieko’s mother, insists on wearing shoes indoors so she can hear her own footsteps. Claire’s room is below street level, so she glimpses merely the disembodied shoes of hurried passers-by through her window. When she sleeps in her grandparents’ spare bed, her feet poke out over the edge. These are constellations of disconnection, instances of the text’s ever-present ripples of loneliness. As with Winter in Sokcho, Dusapin’s highly-acclaimed debut, food encapsulates the twin potential of nourishment and revulsion. Eating is the act of imbibing the external world, entailing the blurring of boundaries between self and other. On meeting Mieko and Madame Ogawa for the first time, Claire is invited to share oysters and seafood lasagne with them. She bites down on something solid she fails to identify and gulps down slippery textures with pained reluctance. Mieko herself is under the impression she must eat foreign recipes so she will acclimate to living abroad once her cells have regenerated. To Claire’s grandparents’ palettes, the Japanese iterations of the Korean kkwabaegi donuts from their childhood are sickly sweet and unappealing. Food becomes a constant, acute marker of otherness.
Worlds within worlds, imitations and artifice are of equal motivic fascination. Claire hopes Disneyland will bring joy to soothe Mieko’s loneliness, but instead she remains heartachingly ambivalent to the cartoonish mice and mermaids tethered to their floats, parading through the rain. Perhaps visiting Heidi’s Village, Japan’s recreation of Johanna Spyri’s alpine setting, will help Mieko to feel less homesick when she moves to Switzerland. Claire’s grandmother occupies herself by dressing up Playmobil, but it is Mieko whose skin has a doll-like sheen.
There is a foregrounding of transnational spaces in The Pachinko Parlour – stations, hotels, McDonald’s, Disneyland – globalised sites in which cultures intermingle, polyphonic with a plurality of languages. Dusapin’s characters are so inseparable from the world around them, yet still tacitly endure such a paucity of connection. It is exactly this distinctive, outwardly contradictory shade of loneliness that Pachinko so richly symbolises. Players sit in parallel lines, even brushing shoulders perhaps, but maintain tunnel-focus on the machine in front of them. Though the game was born of the Zainichis’ resistance to exclusion, it remains a collective yet solitary experience; played by many, but nonetheless an object of disapproval.
Amidst such alienating dysphoria, the emerging friendship between Claire and Mieko affords a reassuring glimpse of compassion and profound togetherness. Despite the years between them, Mieko makes Claire feel seen and understood. Their bond, though melancholy and delicate, transcends language and identity – much like Dusapin’s mesmeric prose itself.
Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour is published by Daunt Books Publishing and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.