‘Die Kieferninseln’ (‘The Pine Islands’) by Marion Poschmann (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 7)

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.

The Pine IslandsIt’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?
No, obvs.

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…

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23 thoughts on “‘Die Kieferninseln’ (‘The Pine Islands’) by Marion Poschmann (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 7)

  1. I enjoyed both “Emissary” and “Convenience”, esp the former for the way the post apocalyptic situation is described. Guess, I will give this one a skip.

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  2. Interesting that the English translation has actually dialled down the stereotyping a little, in the bit about the air stewardess:

    The Japanese stewardess, long black hair put up in a knot, presented him tea with a dazzling smile. Of course, her smile wasn’t for him personally, but it soothed his entire body, as if someone had poured a bucket of balm over him.

    I’m guessing because geishas are particularly well-known as a stereotype after the controversy about Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.

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      1. First off, thanks Tony for the review and sorry it wasn’t for you. I’m about to do something I never do, which is comment on a review of a book I’ve edited. But since the discussion below the line has moved into editorial questions, I thought I’d give my two cents. So, in reply to ANTONOMASIABOOKS, and speaking as the UK editor of (Jen’s translation of) Marion’s novel, let me explain the reason I recommended taking out the Geisha reference, and the reason we made a few other very minor textual changes elsewhere, particularly early on in the book.

        The Pine Islands is a novel whose narration unfolds from an extremely ironised/ironising 3rd person perspective. This, I think, gradually becomes clear as you move through the novel. Gilbert is a chauvinist, and I personally think the novel’s portrayal of him is an effective (and in my view pretty funny) skewering of a certain type of white Western intellectual, a certain type of cultural superiority, a certain type of highfalutin, exoticising stupidity.

        It’s true that by the end of the book, it’s possible Gilbert achieves a kind of positive transformation, almost in spite of himself. But another reading of the ending (and this is a book whose ironic perspective offers you multiple readings of almost everything that happens) is that his privilege – as part of the intelligentsia, as a man, as a Westerner – means he’s completely impervious to the consequences of his own flaws. Or it could equally be that Gilbert’s ‘happy ending’ is just another fantasy of his own creation. It’s a difficult novel to pin down!

        But back to the Geisha reference. Obviously the irony of the perspective is pretty subtle – subtle enough that if you are disinclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt (fair enough, Tony!), you will probably be disinclined to think of it as irony at all. But in any case, the irony is subtle enough that I suspected most readers (perhaps almost all readers), three pages in, may not yet have perceived it. And so I further suspected that most readers, having not perceived the ironic intent yet, would take a reference to a ‘Geisha hairstyle’ as being the author’s chauvinism rather than the protagonist’s chauvinism. So to sum up, the reason I suggested dialling down certain instances of Gilbert’s chauvinism in the opening pages of the book was because I was afraid readers weren’t yet equipped to get the joke, and would (understandably) recoil.

        (Which perhaps raises interesting questions about whether UK readers are less willing than German readers to give the benefit of the doubt to anything they perceive as chauvinism.)

        Anyway, thanks everyone for engaging with the book, and please don’t think I’m suggesting you should engage with it on my terms rather than your own – I just wanted to clarify the editorial question raised by ANTONOMASIABOOKS. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Nick – Thanks for your comment, and it’s unsurprising to hear that things were toned down for the English-language version (obviously, I won’t have seen many of those differences). I’m afraid I can’t agree with you about the subtlety you mention, though, as it was the obviousness of Gilbert’s actions in the first half of the book that really had me wondering what was going on – more subtlety would have been welcome, to be honest. One thing I will agree with is that you probably made the right decision to make changes simply because I (and I’m sure other Anglophone German readers would feel the same) was unhappy with the way Japanese culture was simply fetishised. So it seems that the whole key to the book is whether you feel Poschmann really was skewering Gilbert, and if so, how well she succeeded. I think I’ve made my views on that pretty clear 😉

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        2. Hi Nick, it’s great to see some commentary about this book at last from someone in the know. A lot of the discussion about The Pine Islands, both in the shadow jury chat, and on Goodreads, has been about the ambiguity of the text.

          I felt that even the blurb – which I saw back in December – had this ambiguity: it hinted at satire without being clear that’s what it was, yet it wasn’t entirely impossible it was meant sincerely. (The phrase “journeyman lecturer in beard fashions” in a summary from an established UK publisher, was IMO the strongest indicator of satire.) I think the beginning also has a style usually found in comic novels.

          At one point we looked for interviews with Poschmann to try and get a stronger sense of the book’s intention. The only text one found, which was read by most of us via Google Translate, seemed to suggest it was meant sincerely – although humour and satire were not the subject of any specific questions. I think Tony may have listened to another interview on audio.

          In my own review – a couple of weeks ago on Goodreads – I decided to give it some benefit of the doubt because the Booker panellists include Pankaj Mishra and Elnathan John, and I felt more comfortable deferring to their judgement on the issue of cultural appropriation.

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          1. Ah, I really enjoyed your Goodreads review! Thanks Antonomasia.

            I don’t have any special insight into this, and having given the novel several pretty close readings I think the only authorial intention I’d dare hazard a guess at is the intention to keep us guessing. The novel certainly has satirical intent towards Gilbert, but I’m not sure it’s exactly a satire. There’s humour and it has the structure of a comic novel, but it’s not exactly a comic novel. It’s ostensibly about Japan, and there are lots of ‘insights’ into Japan, but it’s never clear how many of those ‘insights’ (certainly at least a few, certainly not all) we should take seriously. Yosa is a pretty 2d character unless he’s just some kind of delusional suicidal projection of Gilbert’s. And so on. It’s slippery. I have a hunch that Marion likes it that way and wouldn’t be drawn on it in interviews even if they asked…

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Cheers!

              Interesting that the author may intentionally be keeping schtum about it in interviews too – that certainly extends the ‘puzzle’ aspect of the book.

              And it seems right to see it as a blend of genres. If one thinks books are often too formulaic and neatly pigeonholed – I do, and there are articles from time to time about novels that were rejected for not fitting a genre – then there is something to be said for those that disregard conventions, even if (as with The Pine Islands for me) they aren’t personal favourites.

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              1. Antonomasia – Certainly something to be said about them (what that something is, well, that’s another matter entirely!).

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    1. Kaggsy – Mine wasn’t the only negative review out today, either (Grant, over at 1st Reading, had a more polite but just as critical take on it).

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  3. Tony, you should make a note at the top of the review, to be sure and “read the comments” – very illuminating stuff here. Normally not in favour of those involved with a book (author or otherwise) commenting on reviews, but Nick had the right tone, and provided some useful background info, I think. And Tony, you stood your ground. Great review!

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  4. Nick’s comment is very illuminating and I feel identifies the novel’s flaw. I was quite comfortable;e with it as a satire at Gilbert’s expense in the beginning, but the fact that the ending is ambiguous suggests that Poschmann has at some point left this genre behind.

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    1. Grant – That’s the issue here; can you have it both ways? I think not…

      But even if you can, there are more issues than that with the book (it’s merely the biggest).

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  5. I liked this book better than you did, Tony. I thought the writing was incandescent. The relationship between Gilbert and Yosa on this road trip was a genuine and unexpected camaraderie. I especially liked the letters written by Gilbert to his wife – they encompass the doubts, fears, memories and regrets that, ironically, inspired this journey. It is one of the few books that I’ve read from the longlist that I want to read again.

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      1. That’s quite alright, Tony. It apparently hit a nerve with me that so many others on the longlist didn’t. I’m halfway through the last one (The Faculty of Dreams) and not very impressed with that one either. Overall, a disappointing list, I’d say, and one I predict will be overshadowed by the BTBA.

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