The Pine Islands
by Marion Poschmann
Originally published as Die Kieferninseln
Genre: Literary fiction
The Man Booker International 2019 longlist does not feature any book translated from the Japanese this year, which some members of our shadow panel found odd and disappointing. But The Pine Islands, even though it was originally written in German, is actually set in Japan! Really? That was my first reaction, but nice surprises were in store for me.
Gilbert is an associate lecturer, currently an expert in beard styles in art and films!
As he thinks his wife is cheating on him, he decides to distance himself for a while from his life in Germany and ends in Tokyo, “out of pure freedom, out of spite”.
There, he meets Yosa, a young man who wants to commit suicide.
They start a journey together, Yosa to find the best and most romantic place to end his life, Gilbert to dissuade him to do so and to make a sort of pilgrimage following the poet Basho’s own journey as well as his predecessor’s the poet Saigyō (1118-1190). Basho (1644-1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period and recognized as the greatest master of haiku.
Gilbert’s ultimate goal is “a pilgrimage in maximum seclusion, in order to find a way back to autonomy”, and to reach “Matsushima, the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands”, so both an exterior travel and “a journey of spiritual cleansing”.
The Japanese pines on their scenic island –were they truly capable of teaching him to see something?
The decisive question, however, is whether this route also leads to an inner understanding of the phenomenon of the Japanese black pine, so that at the end one is able to see a pine.
The travelers to Matsushima were lunatics, moonstruck, 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.
This cliff, covered in pine trees, was a gnawing beauty, and you had to catch the perfect moment when the sun fell on a pinpointed corner of the rocks.
They stop at many places before they reach their final destination, thus experiencing many aspects of Japanese culture, and visiting unusual places, for instance the “suicide forest Aokigahara”, and the Mihara Volcano.
No one lost control, everyone waited, just as they should do, they made sure not to take up too much space so as not to disturb the others, they took care not to scrape the ground with their feet or to show any other signs of impatience.
The book offers a fascinating mix of hilariously absurd passages on the characters, on beard in art and theology, as well as tries at haiku, and at the very same time fascinating and most appreciative glimpses on Japanese culture, seen from the eyes of a German tourist.
This element made me often feel I was actually reading a Japanese novel.
And of course, there are gorgeous descriptions on the landscape, which prompted me to go look at pictures of these real places.
I also enjoyed funny passages trying different forms in the narration, such as for instance the inclusion of all the variations of trees, or of colors, such as green, red, or blue, and other aesthetics insights.
So even though I was at first very doubtful about this book –why on earth include in the longlist a book on Japan written by a German author (instead of a Japanese author, sadly absent from the 2019 longlist)—it actually worked for me, and does indeed seem to perfectly fit the judging committee’s aim: “We’re thrilled to share 13 books which enrich our idea of what fiction can do.”
Should it be on the MB12019 shortlist?
Yes! Right now it’s definitely near the top of my list.
VERDICT: Insightful, beautiful and at the same time absurdly funny take on inner transformation amid Japanese culture.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Any other good book recently translated from the German?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this ebook free of charge from the publisher. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.