Marion Poschmann: The Pine Islands, transl. Jen Calleja
On paper, this book seemed to have all the right ingredients to be much loved by me. A man – washed-up part-time researcher on beards Gilbert Silvester – has a midlife crisis, suspects his wife is cheating on him and decides to go to Japan to find himself. He embarks upon a road trip (a train trip) with a suicidal Japanese sidekick, following in the footsteps of haiku master Basho Matsuo and his travelogue Narrow Road to the Deep North. In actual fact, I thought this was a mongrel that was neither one clear thing nor another, and had no vivacity or charm of its own to make up for that.
It started off reasonably promisingly with the well-trodden but still potentially gripping ‘confused in Tokyo’ stance:
How had he ended up in this city without the slightest effort? What did he want to do here? … He was, he suddenly put it to himself, very far from everything that had ever been familiar to him. He had taken himself off into the unknown, into this most unfamiliar of environments, and the eerie feeling he was experiencing stemmed from the fact that this environment didn’t seem eerie in the slightest, simply functional, somewhat pretentious and somewhat sterile.
This confusion does not last long and does not stop Gilbert from becoming what the Germans call a Besserwisser (who knows everything better than you), an expert in Japanese culture, who presumes to lecture his travel companion, the improbably named Yosa Tamagotchi. Never mind the fact that Yosa is a native of Japan but barely speaks any English and therefore does not have much of a chance to explain himself.
Although Gilbert claims to be watching over Yosa to prevent him committing suicide, he actually takes him on a whistlestop tour of popular suicide spots and is equally obsessed with reaching Matsushima Bay, that scenic spot full of pine-tree clad islands, which seems to be catnip to suicidal Japanese. He even loses Yosa along the way, because he is too absorbed and smug about the haikus he produces at each stop in the journey, in imitation of Basho. Of course, he now counts himself among those who have imbibed all the subtlety of Japanese culture.
The traveller to Matsushima were lunatics, moon-stuck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.
I tried to be generous and think of this book as a philosophical and metaphorical journey. Could the young, diffident Japanese man with the barely there beard be his Doppelgänger? A loser in Japanese society, Yosa is the perfect foil to Gilbert, who is pretty much a loser in his own society (and certainly when compared to his professionally far more successful, no-nonsense wife). By finding someone weaker than himself, someone he can hector and lecture to his heart’s content, Gilbert manages to recover from his midlife crisis. I’m not sure his wife was too impressed with the letters he sent her, though.
There are some lyrical passages and poetic descriptions, but do we really need a longish paragraph listing all of the different types of pine trees? What irked me above all was that the insight into Japanese society feels superficial, like the main protagonist has swallowed the guidebook and then regurgitated it. But that might be the author, who appears to pick on the most obvious Orientalist othering type of observations, while claiming a deeper understanding. If this was intended to be a parody of Eat Pray Love with a middle-aged male protagonist (which would have been a promising premise), then it’s just not funny enough.
I don’t think reading it in German would have made much of a difference – the translator seems to have done her best. So a bit of a disappointment and somewhat surprising that it made it onto the shortlist of the International Booker Prize.
9 thoughts on “#WITMonth: The Pine Islands”
This one seems to have provoked a lot of confused reaction – if not hostile (I read several very cross reviews around the time of the prize). It does seem a mystery how it got shortlisted. I’ve found myself that books that *should* be perfect for me actually miss completely – it’s very frustrating…
I’m fascinated by the idea of being a researcher on beards. I feel now that that was probably the career I was destined for. Is it too late to begin, I wonder?
Listing things in novels can be illuminating, if a tad tedious; I’m thinking of Moby-Dick, where there is far more information than one might need on whaling topics. From what you say here this novel is just aiming at offbeat and over quirky. I just read Convenience Store Woman, and feel I’ve gained valuable insight into some aspects of Japanese culture and people in a very short novella without feeling I’ve read a guide book.
I’m sorry this one didn’t work about better for you, Marina Sofia. On the surface, it sounds like a really excellent premise for a novel, and an interesting way to explore Japan as well as to explore relationships, psychology, etc.. Sometimes, even some poetic writing doesn’t mean a book is excellent…
I don’t think I want to spend any time with Gilbert. He sounds awful. I’ll probably give this a miss, although I am intrigued as to how much research can be done into beards…
I wouldn’t want Gilbert for a guide if he’s just going to take me to well know suicide spots. Bit of an odd trip that…..
This was pretty much our reaction (as a group) on the MBIP shadow panel. I quite enjoyed it to begin with, but that soon ended when it became clear that the book wasn’t the parody it appeared to be. Galling to see this shortlisted for the Man Booker.
Yes, it could have been so much more…
I am not surprised the shadow panel felt like that! I had heard it was a bit of a controversial one.