The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, trans. by Jen Calleja (Coach House Books 2020)
Reviewed by Aramis Grant
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja from German, follows middle-aged German professor Gilbert Silvester. Silvester is a researcher on beard styles in film, who, after dreaming of his wife cheating on him, reacts in his waking life as if his dream reveals an unquestionable truth. He allows his anger and disappointment to carry him overseas to Japan, where he meets a suicidal young man named Yosa Tamagotchi.
Gilbert’s intellectual curiosity is piqued when he notices the young man’s beard. He approaches Yosa, interrupting Yosa’s plan to end his own life. The two begin their journey with the expectation of Gilbert’s assistance in securing a “better” location for Yosa’s death. Using a guidebook Yosa has with him, they make their way to several locations outlined in The Complete Manual of Suicide. It eventually becomes clear that Gilbert is not actually living up to the initial plan. Instead, he desires Yosa’s companionship on his personal journey to follow the path of 17th century Japanese haiku master Bashō, who left the material world behind him and traveled by foot through Japan seeking inspiration for his poems. Bashō’s pilgrimage ends at the pine islands of Masushima.
The book quickly introduces Gilbert’s delusion, selfishness, insecurity, and a desperate need for what he considers love and approval. While he struggles with feeling small, his professorship grants him some arrogance, which turns quickly to ignorance as he travels through a foreign country. Poschmann exemplifies this in Gilbert’s thoughts of tea countries versus coffee countries beginning on page 13 .
“European Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, China, Japan – a flight path that only passed over tea-drinking nations. Until now, Gilbert Silvester had categorically dismissed countries with above-average tea consumption.”
His journey is riddled with stereotypical views and expectations of Japanese culture, which prohibit him from accepting the moments that don’t align with his expectations. If it were not for the book’s well-done descriptive writing and the characters’ haikus, readers might come away imagining very little of the very real country.
Readers are on a roller coaster of mind and reality, as Gilbert’s imagination is so vivid and fascinating. This must come directly from the mind of Marion Poschmann, who delivers this story in such a way that fans of more streamlined and direct writing might be turned off by. However, for readers who enjoy non-sequential storytelling that lends itself more to an exercise in inventiveness than comprehension, this book can serve as a welcome challenge.
On the topic of challenge, Poschmann’s decision to separate Gilbert’s dream state and delusions from his waking life by referring to the protagonist by first name or full name, Gilbert and Gilbert Silvester, provides the reader with a heads up for twists and turns on the roller coaster of the main character’s internal unrest. The dream Gilbert has on page 17 incorporates the sights of Japan living in the subconscious of Gilbert Silvester.
“Dreams of what remained from the day. Tea nations, samurai. The swordfighter dresses himself in silken garments for a crucial battle and he pays the tea master a visit.”
Gilbert Silvester seems disappointed by the reality of it all, as when he takes in the look of his “modest and modern” (18) hotel room. By keeping the protagonist’s two states of being in mind, Poschmann assists readers in managing the flow of the book while taking in underlying messages of mental health, self-development and discovery.
In the blink of an eye, Poschmann’s book ends, leaving readers with a choice to see Gilbert’s potential for inner-peace or accept him as the problematic personality he has been throughout. Reflective readers are also left with the memory of Yosa and his inner-conflict, echoing the memory of Gilbert Silvester’s wife Mathilda, and their fraught relationship that began the novel.
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