The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann
This is one of my MBI Longlist reads. Poschmann is a highly acclaimed poet and novelist in Germany but her work does not appear to have been widely translated and promoted in the US or UK. This novel won a major German literary prize when it came out.
[Content Warning: discussions and suggestions of suicideal ideation and activity]
The story is narrated by Gilbert Silvester, a member of the academic precariat who wakes up one morning after having had a dream that his wife is cheating on him. He accuses her, she denies it, and he decides to leave her and fly immediately to the most remote place he can find: Tokyo. After a long and restless flight he lands in Narita and picks up a handful of Japanese classics in English, including a volume of the great poet Basho’s haikus.
Tokyo is not an obvious place for Gilbert to go: he is a coffee drinker flying to the ultimate land of tea, a scholar of beards as they are depicted in art and film in a land where men rarely wear beards, and without much of a plan beyond escaping his current trauma. But his journey is soon shaped by two events: he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, a young Japanese student who is afraid he has failed his exams and is planning to commit suicide; and a desire to reproduce Basho’s journey to the Pine Islands, famed for their natural beauty.
After persuading Yosa not to throw himself in front a train, Gilbert takes him back to his hotel room, where Yosa treats him with deference and politeness. Yosa has been consulting a book entitled The Complete Manual of Suicide and Gilbert persuades Yosa to postpone his plan and come with him on his journey. Yosa stipulates and Gilbert accepts the condition that they will visit sites of famous suicides that are described in the Manual and which are considered particularly memorable and beautiful. These combined destinations take the two men on a journey from south of Tokyo back to the city, then on past Fukushima and finally, late in the novel, to the Pine Islands, with stops at many sites of natural beauty along the way. Poschmann is known for her writing about the natural world and it is beautifully depicted and translated here.
The book begins with a quirky and satirical tone and the catalytic event reminded me of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Less. Gilbert is not nearly as lovable as Arthur Less, but there are more layers to this novel. The interaction of Western male and Eastern society is at first just as purposefully stereotypical and cliche-ridden, but then it becomes more deeply explored. Gilbert’s intellectual complacency and self-satisfaction is foregrounded against a society that is revealed to be entirely resistant to his presence. In the end, he changes nothing in Japan, but his experiences change him, or at least they force him to look inward in ways that are good for him and that he can’t control.
The Gilbert-Yosa pairing mimics Basho’s journey with his companion, Sora. But as Yosa’s surname, Tamagotchi, suggests, part of Gilbert’s job is to keep Yosa alive. Gilbert seems to perceive Yosa in a way that is similar to how the electronic toy was perceived, i.e., young, unformed, unable even to grow a beard. Preventing him from killing himself gives Gilbert a purpose in his otherwise unfocused travels, and Yosa provides information and insight about the places they go. He also writes much better haiku.
But Gilbert can’t keep Yosa from continuing to attempt to fulfill his objective, and when they are separated and Yosa disappears at a train junction Gilbert starts to fall apart. His complacency and belief in his own intellectual superiority starts to fade away. He enters and leaves dreamlike states and becomes more keenly aware of the world around him. Poschmann contrasts the brutalism and functionality of the built environment with the beautiful and wild natural world (even the carefully tended pines in the Imperial Palace Gardens are encouraged to grow in winding branches). Tea starts to taste almost good to him.
The comic tone of the first half of the novel is replaced by a darker, more poetic, and even more atmospheric style as Gilbert grows closer to and then immerses himself in the Pine Islands. The ending is ambiguous, although there is a hint that Yosa didn’t just disappear.
And what about Gilbert’s wife, Mathilda? She calls him frantically when he first leaves and he finally responds, but he refuses to believe she is innocent of the acts his dream told him about. Nevertheless, while in Japan he writes her long, philosophical letters about beards, trees, and the Japanese settings he is experiencing. We never see Mathilda except as an extension of Gilbert’s world, not her own person in the book, which might be off-putting to some readers.
There has been discussion in GR reviews about whether the text is appropriating Japanese culture and stereotyping the culture and people. My take is that while there are scenes and passages that do this quite explicitly, they are from Gilbert’s perspective and therefore part of the thematic structure of the novel. Gilbert is a sendup of the Western traveler who is complacent and self-satisfied about his own take on other cultures, to the point where he lectures Yosa on Japanese history. As the story progresses and as Gilbert becomes increasingly unmoored, those aspects also diminish in the novel. That suggests to me that it was an authorial choice, not unconscious appropriation or stereotyping.
There are many layers in this book that I’m sure I missed because I’m not as familiar with the German references as other readers might be. There are clearly parallels with trees and forests, and more generally an emphasis on the importance of the natural world, but nuances beyond that were lost to me. Nevertheless, I found this quite a compelling read. The first part was obviously comic, and then the second half became much more thickly atmospheric.
I was often puzzled while reading, but by the end I felt as if I’d read something quite profound, something I didn’t altogether get but I was glad to have read and that continues to work itself out in my thoughts.