Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands (2017)
Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (2019)
After dreaming that his wife has cheated on him, Gilbert Silvester leaves Germany for Japan, for no reason he can articulate. Inspired by the travelogues of Bashō, Gilbert decides to go to the pine-covered islands of Matsushima in the north. He takes under his wing a young man named Yosa Tamagotchi, whom he stops from throwing himself under a train. We’ll find you a better spot, Gilbert tells him.
At first – with Gilbert’s tenuous pretext for fleeing home, the hipsterish nature of his job (a lecturer on beards in film), and his unshakeable confidence in his own rightness – it seemed clear to me that The Pine Islands would be spoofing the stereotypical, self-absorbed white Western male who goes off to distant lands in order to ‘find himself’. There are some nicely amusing moments, such as when Gilbert tries composing a haiku:
Hi from Tokyo –
Cherry trees no longer bloom,
only bare concrete.
Gilbert read his poem through a few times and concluded that he had reached the heart of the matter. The rules of the haiku, which he had learnt from the appendix of the Bashō book, had been perfectly realised within these lines: five, then seven, then once more five syllables, an allusion to the season, a sensuous impression, universal and seemingly impersonal, in which a sensitive reader would have nevertheless been able to decipher profound emotion.
Well, if you say so, Gilbert.
As Poschmann’s novel progresses, Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery gains more weight. There are lovely passages of nature writing in the latter stages (it’s a carefully controlled translation by Jen Calleja). The thing is that, when the book takes Gilbert more seriously, it ends up undermining the tone of critique that came before, and Japan itself feels more like a backdrop than a place. The result is a frustratingly uneven novel.
The Pine Islands (2017) by Marion Poschmann, tr. Jen Calleja (2019), Serpent’s Tail, 184 pages, hardback.
Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.