The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Dusapin is a Franco-Korean author who won the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Lit for her first novel Winter in Sokcho, which followed the life of a young woman working at a hotel at the town near the Korean border. Born in France, Dusapin was raised there and in Seoul and Switzerland where she now resides, and she writes in French.
Her second novel follows the visit of a granddaughter back to Japan, where her ageing Korean grandparents, who fled the civil war for Tokyo, run a pachinko parlour in Tokyo. Gambling is prohibited except in certain situations, the pachinko parlours run by Koreans immigrants being one, pachinko being a kind of bagatelle slot machine. Claire is living with her grandparents for the month of August, and tutoring a ten-year-old student, Meiko, in French while there. At the end of the summer her plan is to take her grandparents back to Korea for one last visit home, for them and her.
Right from the novel’s beginning, I wondered whether Claire’s grandparents would make the trip. Her grandfather, who still manages the Pachinko parlour, is in his nineties; her grandmother spends her time playing with Playmobil figures while not cooking. Would they stand the journey? Claire, struggles to communicate with them, she’s lost most of her Korean, living and working in Geneva with her Western boyfriend, Mathieu; their Japanese is rudimentary at best. Getting out of the cramped apartment to visit her student is a good thing, but Meiko’s mother, Mrs Ogawa, a French teacher herself is often there and insists on feeding Claire too. As the month goes on, Claire and Meiko will bond, and beyond learning idiomatic French, go out together on day trips – but what interests Meiko even more than Disneyland is the pachinko parlour.
I arrive at the Shiny. My grandfather has unplugged the strings of lights, turned off the neon lighting, the spotlights. With the shopfront darkened like this, I realise how badly lit this end of the street is, with its two meagre streetlights either side of the taxi rank. The main source of light here was the Shiny, attracting all the insects at night.
I bring my face close to the window. With no one to play then, the machines seem pathetic. A single bulb glimmers weakly near the desk, the watchman just discernible in it s dim glow. Pachinko balls. For Mieko. I could ask him to give me some, I won’t get another change. Rain starts falling, fine and cold. Autumn rain, with a tang of rust. I realise the summer is over.
I never really got the measure of Claire. She is totally unlike Naoise Dolan’s spiky Ava in Exciting Times, an Irish TEFL teacher in Hong Kong which was my nearest comparison. She’s slightly older, and indecisive in regard to her grandparents, not wanting to railroad them into the long trip south, but irritated at their lack of decisiveness too. Apart from teaching Meiko, she does nothing interesting, and I must admit it slightly bored me. There is probably a lot more unsaid to unpack reading between the lines in this novel, but I wasn’t really interested enough to do it.
Source: Own copy. Daunt Books flapped paperback (2022), 171 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
New Stories from the Mabinogion #6: The Prince’s Pen by Horatio Clare
Around ten to twelve years ago, Welsh publisher Seren commissioned and published a set of ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’, medieval Welsh manuscripts full of myths, legend, Celtic and Arthurian lore. I am gradually working my way through the set, mostly for Reading Wales month, hosted each March by Paula at Bookjotter. You can find links to my previous five reviews from the series here.
The story of brothers Lludd and Llevelys in the original texts is a mere five pages long in which Lludd becomes King of Britain and founds Llundain aka London; Llevelys marries a French princess; and three distinctly odd plagues imperil Britain which Lludd negates with the counsel of his brother. A lot happens in a handful of pages, so Clare has adapted and expanded it into a long novella of spec fiction, a dystopian tale set anywhere from now into the near future. The story is narrated by Clip, a young man with a harelip, who acts as the ‘Prince’s Pen’ to Ludo, one of the Welsh bandit king brothers, who can’t read or write.
Here is the story of Ludo and Levello. Here is the true history of how, by cunning and valour, they defeated the invaders. Here is how Ludo – through his brother’s counsel and Uzma’s power – mastered the dread beast of Faith. And here also is a curious chapter in Ludo’s last coup, the restoration of the people’s land. From Clip the Prince’s Pen, last survivor of the court of Ludo the Warlord, the Peace Father, to you, unknown reader of the future, Greetings!
Clip is found by Ludo as a young man working at the docks in Pembroke, Clip becoming his best friend and Thomas Cromwell equivalent. Ludo and his band of Dissenters fight against the Invaders of Britain from the World Majority Government, hiding out in the Welsh hills, having to live off-grid to avoid being found by their enemy’s electronics. The only other free country not in this alliance is Pakistan, and Levello will marry their princess Uzma, thus forging an alliance, but converting to Islam as a consequence. Together with the assistance of Theo the Bug and his tech, they will overcome the Invaders and bring stability back to Britain. But it is at a cost as the faith-based regime Islamic takes over the previous political one with Uzma as its high priestess. The natives are restless though, and Ludo, who had exiled Clip to an island in the Irish Sea, returns to bring him to Oxford where he must face off with Uzma in a battle of words to achieve religious freedom and independence once again for Britain.
As you may imagine, initially this tale of guerrilla warfare is bloody and messy, Clare’s storytelling through Clip’s narration is unsparing in giving us the detail of their incursions into Invader territory and the retribution wreaked by return until their alliance with Theo the Bug gives the brothers victory, (although this turns slightly Pyrrhic in nature as it takes a while for the message to get out and the Dissenters keep on executing Invaders). The untidiness and brutality of war can be clearly seen. Then the period of peace under the imposition of faith comes, and the Britons seek a return of freedom to practise whatever religion or not they want.
The section where Clip is exiled to the island with only the birds for company except the delivery of stores in alternate months is very different, and Clare is quite evocative about the hermit’s life, although desperate for new, Clip is becoming accustomed to it (as Piranesi in Susannah Clarke’s novel). The return of Ludo to bring him to Oxford for the big public debate with Uzma is a wrench for Clip – can he survive being thrust into the limelight once again?
While I didn’t quite love this novella, I very much enjoyed it through the quirky narrator and Clare’s multi-faceted prose, in turn blunt or poetic, and the though-provoking premise he concocted, a scenario which reminded me of Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent which is set in a similar faith-led Britain (and was published a couple of years after Clare’s novella).
What I particularly enjoy, as with the Canongate Myths series, is how all the different writers approach their retellings of the legends and source material. An interesting addition to the New Stories from the Mabinogion series. An appendix gives a synopsis of the original, and then Clare’s afterword tells how he adapted it, giving a good insight into his inspirations for the story.
Source: Own copy. Seren, flapped paperback, 206 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)