Our previous stop in Bogotá, filled as it was with assassinations and conspiracies, may have been a tad stressful for some readers, so today it’s time for some relaxation on our Man Booker International Prize magical mystery tour. The latest leg of our journey takes us to Japan, where a German academic suffering through a mid-life crisis decides to follow in the footsteps of a literary great. However, he gets more than he bargains for when he meets a young local with a death wish, meaning his journey becomes a little more complex. It’s time to get on the bullet train and head off north, this time in search of some very special trees…
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann
– Serpent’s Tail, translated by Jen Calleja
(I read the German-language original, Die Kieferninseln )
What’s it all about? (be sure to read the comments for a different take on this!!!)
When Gilbert Silvester, a German academic, wakes up one day from a dream in which his wife cheats on him, rather than shaking it off as an unpleasant experience, he instead decides to leave her and flee the country. Getting on the first long-distance flight he can get a ticket for, he eventually finds himself in Tokyo, where a plan develops to follow in the footsteps of the great haiku poet Bashō and see some of the country’s most famous places of natural beauty.
This plan is altered somewhat by a chance encounter on Gilbert’s first day in Tokyo. After buying a platform ticket at a train station, he sees a young man preparing to commit suicide, and after stopping him from jumping onto the tracks, he takes his new friend back to the hotel. With the quiet, obedient Yosa Tamagotchi as his travel companion, the German visitor now sets off on a new quest, to follow Bashō’s lead while at the same time searching for the appropriate place for Yosa to die…
If you’re starting to think this all sounds quirky and intriguing, I’ve got bad news for you – it’s actually pretty awful. I had my doubts about The Pine Islands from the moment the longlist was announced, and after finishing it, I can only say that, if anything, those doubts were understated. Several readers and reviewers were concerned about cultural appropriation in the longlist, particularly when it came to Tommy Wieringa’s The Death of Murat Idrissi, but this is a book that truly shows how *not* to approach another culture.
From the very start, Poschmann’s novel is full of clichés, with the writer rolling out all the standard preconceptions about Japan. Our learned friend begins his observations on the plane to Tokyo:
Die japanische Stewardeß, langes schwarzes Haar zu einem Geisha-Knoten aufgesteckt, schenkte ihm mit bezauberndem Lächeln Tee nach. Natürlich galt dieses Lächeln nicht ihm persönlich, aber er fühlte sich davon ganzkörperlich berührt, als habe man einen Eimer Balsam über ihn ausgegossen.
p.10 (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 2018)
The Japanese stewardess, her long, black hair put up in a Geisha-style knot, poured his tea with a bewitching smile. Of course, this smile wasn’t really meant just for him, but he felt it soothing his whole body, as if someone had poured a bucket of balsam over him.
*** (my translation)
Don’t worry – there’s more where that came from. Quite apart from his pseudo-philosophical musings on the psychology of coffee- and tea-drinking cultures, Gilbert takes us on a kitsch tour of Japan with musical toilets, ‘exotic’ food and a bullet-train conductor apologising for the train being thirty seconds behind schedule. I’m only surprised there’s no mention of Pikachu or Hello Kitty (perhaps they were cut at the draft stage).
Another rather disturbing feature of the novel is the German protagonist’s Japanese sidekick. Quite apart from the ludicrous name, poor Yosa is nothing more than a comedy prop, a clueless local for Gilbert to bounce ideas off. Well, what I really mean by that is western mansplaining – Gilbert likes to talk:
Gilbert hielt eine Rede über das moderne Tokyo, über das alte Edo, stellte dar, wie sich die Stadt über die Jahrhunderte verändert hatte, wie die Hochhäuser wuchsen, wie die ganze Gegend in einem funkelnden Lichtermeer ertrank, wie sich eine vollkommen neue Art von Schönheit herausbildete, die Bashō natürlich nicht gekannt, über die er aber mit Sicherheit etwas zu sagen gewußt hätte. (p.91)
Gilbert held forth on modern Tokyo, on old Edo, described how the city had changed over the centuries, how the skyscrapers had shot up, how the whole region drowned in a sparkling sea of lights, how an entirely new form of beauty had emerged from all this, which Bashō, of course, could never have known of, but about which he would certainly have found something to say. ***
Well, thanks for that, Gilbert. Surprisingly, the visitor’s area of study in academia is not architecture but the use of beards in painting throughout history, so it’s just as well that Poschmann ensures Yosa has one – which proves to be just the first of many comedy stick-on beards he carries in his bag…
So is The Pine Islands a parody, with the writer carefully skewering her hapless creation? It appears not, and the rest of the novel seems to suggest that Poschmann is actually taking this all rather seriously. There are some scattered mentions of Fukushima, thrown in to prove to the reader that the writer knows about the 3/11 disasters, and one of the more coherent themes of the novel appears to be the contrast between Japan’s poetic past and its more prosaic concrete-covered present. As the novel progresses, the suggestions that Yosa isn’t all he first appears become clearer, and we come to see Gilbert as drifting alone on an uncertain journey, wanting to reach his goal but not really knowing what will happen once he gets there.
It’d be unfair of me to say that it’s completely terrible, and there are some things to like about The Pine Islands. While the prose is a little pedestrian for the most part, there are some nice passages, mostly describing nature, the best of which is the depiction of the eerie forest in Aokigahara, a magnet for the suicidal where abandoned shoes and the remains of nooses can be seen amongst the trees. I read the German-language version, but I was able to take a quick look at an excerpt in Granta, covering the first eight pages or so, and Jen Calleja’s work seems excellent. I also thought the last chapter, with Gilbert finally seeing the famed pines, and finding a form of closure, finished the novel off well. Well, it would have done if the rest of the book had been better…
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the selection of this book for the longlist is that there were a number of works by *actual* Japanese writers that could (and should) have been chosen instead. The Pine Islands made it in ahead of books such as Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, Yōko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo, Kei Iwaki’s Farewell, My Orange and (and this one really hurt…) Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station. And that’s without even mentioning Murakami… Instead, we were given a book that’s kitsch, clichéd and ultimately disappointing. I’m afraid Gilbert’s journey to Matsushima is one trip I’d rather not have bothered with.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Will it make the shortlist?
I hope not. I’ve gradually become rather less than impressed with the longlist – here’s hoping the shortlist will be rather better…
Let’s all just pretend this never happened and move on with our lives (alternatively, if you think I’ve been too nasty, Grant, over at 1streading’s Blog, offers a very similar, if more professional, take on the book). Next up is a trip to Oman, where we’ll spend some time in the company of three sisters, and their (very) extended family. This will be unfamiliar territory for most, and I’m afraid the writer isn’t going to make it easy for us – this is a story where linear narratives are hard to come by…