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The Pine Islands
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A- : beautifully turned absurdist tale
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The premise of -- and indeed much of what happens in -- The Pine Islands is preposterous.
Gilbert Silvester wakes up distraught after a dream that his wife, Mathilda, had been cheating on him -- a dream so vague he doesn't even know whether it was with a man or a woman -- and is so convinced by it that, at the end of the day, after a brief confrontation (in which she denies being unfaithful), he gathers a few things, takes the underground to the airport, and buys a ticket for the next intercontinental flight he can get a seat on -- to Tokyo, departing the next morning.
He had always assumed that he, like everyone else, knew the Japanese classics off by heart, but standing in front of the shelf with the pocket books he now had to admit that he himself had at most watched a couple of hours of Japanese films during his lifetime and had never been able so much as to recite a haiku.The books he buys are The Tale of Genji (a rare slightly discordant note in Poschmann's otherwise so careful selection of cultural references -- a touchstone, surely, but a hell of a fat book, and one he would surely be unlikely to want to lug around; unsurprisingly, it doesn't feature in the rest of the story), The Pillow Book, and the works of haiku-master Bashō. It's Bashō, then, who also inspires him, and in whose footsteps he wants to literally follow: Bashō gave up everything (or tried to), to take a spiritual and physical journey to Matsushima, "the most beautiful place in Japan", famous for its pine forests: "to follow his poetic vision, to cultivate a fresh look at the world". Gilbert decides to more or less follow suit; now he has a plan -- and he can say: "He had a purpose".
Gilbert's sudden act can be seen as a mid-life crisis: his life has been a disappointment, doing things he doesn't like; he doesn't feel he's worthy of his wife. Going to the other side of the globe is certainly a radical kind of break -- though he doesn't go into it seeing it as absolute, just rather a more distant and extreme sort of outing. It's also something of a random act -- he bought a ticket for the first intercontinental flight he could find (so distance was important, not destination) -- and he landed without any clear plan of what next.
It's not only Bashō that then provides him with purpose and destination: while wandering around Tokyo he comes across a youth named Yosa Tamagotchi on a train platform, where Yosa is in the process of neatly arranging his suicide, afraid he wasn't going to pass his exams (though it turns out he has quite a few other issues as well). Gilbert takes him under his wings, and then enlists him as travel companion -- in part also apparently out of a sense of obligation, to keep an eye on the determinedly suicidal youth --, Gilbert guided by his Bashō-collection, Yosa by the book he carries with him, the helpful: The Complete Guide to Suicide. If Matsushima is their final destination, Gilbert is nevertheless willing to humor Yosa and accompany him to scope out other popular suicide spots first, such as the famous suicide-forest of Aokigahara -- even though he's rather annoyed that this also means that: "all the while they were essentially going backward". Gilbert doesn't exactly talk Yosa out of suicide, but his disapproval of the selected sites is, at least step by step, enough to dissuade the young man.
As Gilbert sees it, Bashō and Yosa both seek a solution in variations on suicide: Yosa's is the simple, absolute, outer one of physical death, while Bashō: "strove for the inner suicide, he wanted to be free of his ego in order to be freed up for his poetry". Gilbert, too, is a seeker, but lacks the imagination (and everything else) to truly contemplate either way out. Bashō and Yosa seem to show a way, yet they are not ones Gilbert can really follow. Not that he seems drawn to the absolute solution Yosa wants to move towards -- but then for all Yosa's seeming determination, he's rather easily talked into moving on, again and again; that Gilbert actually manages to eventually, late in their trip, simply to lose him is an appropriate ambiguous fade-out of this possibility for Gilbert (even as Yosa's impression certainly remains a lasting one, and he continues to figure in the story).
As for Bashō, to Gilbert's disappointment modern Japan has more than obscured most of the traces of his stations and inspirations. Much of Matsushima Bay is a construction site, the damage from the recent earthquake still being repaired: "there was not a tourist in sight. Empty bus parks, sealed-up houses, a ghost town". The initial impression of his final destination is that whatever was once here has been abandoned and lost (though moving beyond that Gilbert does at least reach those pines).
Gilbert can try to finds satisfaction in haikus of his own -- he starts writing them on his journey -- but his basic insecurity largely thwarts him here, too. So even upon reaching his destination, he wonders:
Was he able to see ? The pines, their beauty, their contours, their details, a complete picture ? He didn't know where he should focus his attentionThe connection to Mathilda also proves stronger than he seems to have initially thought. After storming out, he is disappointed not to hear from her, especially once he reaches Tokyo -- he understands that she: "was a very busy woman", but still figures she might have taken a few minutes to try to figure out what happened to him. (As it turns out, the fault would seem to have been his: turning on his phone, he finds: "Twenty-five thousand missed calls had been received, and he hadn't noticed a single one of them" (a rare instance of what seems like too obvious hyperbole but can also be seen as one of the narrative's many hints that something else entirely is going on here .....).) Mathilda also refuses at first to believe he's actually done something as crazy as fly halfway around the world when he tries to explain himself on the telephone; he, however, then keeps her abreast of his undertaking and progress with a steady stream of written messages -- quite a few, given the short time-frame of the action.
Gilbert is an almost ridiculous figure, but Poschmann treats him seriously enough, even at his most ridiculous. So, for example, his academic area of expertise is beards -- "unrivalled in the dubiousness stakes", perhaps, but something he has found some small success with. His current research project is on: "the impact of the representation of beards in film"; typically: "it was a research project where the results had already been established". Gilbert doesn't lack in a certain kind of confidence, and he seems to go into his journey with a similar attitude, unable to imagine an outcome different from the one scripted in his mind; conclusions are foregone for him, and he tries his best not to allow evidence to the contrary to muddy the waters. (See, for example, his certainty after dreaming his wife was unfaithful: once the conclusion had been established there was nothing left to confirm or deny). His Japanese travels, with Yosa and alone, prove more problematic: even as he is sure of the track he's on, this unfamiliar reality proves destabilizing at every turn. Practically nothing meets his (unfounded) expectations and beliefs, neither country, culture, nor even Yosa are what he imagines they should be.
Why didn't Yosa have even a minimal amount of Buddhist composure, why wasn't he even the teensiest bit mellow, as one ought to expect from the land of Zen, and where was the almost pornographic eagerness to experiment, whereby the Japanese reputedly succeed in ingratiating even the crudest obscenities into an excessive sex life without the slightest feeling of guilt ?Typically, Gilbert had never even been interested in Tokyo and all its promise -- much more then drawn to, ridiculously, the drab city of Sendai:
One only travelled to Sendai if it was unavoidable, for professional or family reasons, or while in transit. And yet Gilbert had remained completely indifferent to Tokyo. [...] Sendai, on the other hand: vapid photographs on webpages, grey high-rises that might just as well be in Calcutta, in Detroit or Vladivostok. The vacuity of Sendai drew him in with magical energy.Poschmann leads Gilbert on his trip with expert deadpan humor, the story full of neatly observed little scenes such as when he and Yosa embark on their trip and Gilbert is disappointed to find Yosa "devouring heaps of provisions" he seems to have bought before their departure:
Some kind of gold mushroom. Beef. Spinach. Hadn't Yosa fully grasped that they were setting off on a journey of hardship and restrictions ? Or did he think that this would be his final chance for gluttony ? Finally, it all became too absurd for Gilbert, and he allowed himself to be handed a night-black triangle filled with shrimp mayonnaise.Yosa is an interesting figure, a sad sack side-kick and foil. Yosa has a small beard (he has his reasons) -- one that proves to be fake; he carries a supply of them with him, to replace it as need be. Tellingly, it initially completely escaped beard-expert Gilbert that the beard wasn't real. But even before the end readers likely wonder whether in fact there isn't more to Yosa -- like his entire being ... -- that isn't real .....
In a novel featuring so many dreams that seem so real, it's unsurprising to find that the distinction between the real and imagined often proves not to be clear. Despite Gilbert's seeming lacking of imagination, perhaps his mind's eye is in fact expansive -- and suggests another way of seeing the story in its entirety, a story that is arguably meant to be ambiguous as to its very nature. So also, even with its fairly neat ending, The Pine Islands is open-ended, leaving much essentially unresolved (and, in some ways, unclear) -- but hardly irritatingly so.
Gilbert moves deceptively confidently: he always seems determined and moves ahead with purpose -- and keeps moving. But Poschmann subtly (and not so subtly) undermines him in her narrative at nearly every step, including in presenting him as racked by doubt about much in his life and his (oh so limited) accomplishments. So also she notes his doubts about his undertaking, even as he closes in on his destination:
He thought primarily about pines while doing so, he thought almost exclusively about pines. The Japanese pines on their scenic island -- were they truly capable of teaching him to see something ? And if they were, why couldn't a completely normal pine, like the one in the Brandenburg Forest, for instance, not be just as qualified to do so ?Gilbert is limited -- in understanding, especially -- and among the reasons for plopping him down in Japan is surely to be able to present him as essentially clueless: his sense of Japan is that of a reasonably educated foreigner who is familiar with the country and culture from the background noise that filters through in this modern mass-media age and nothing more, i.e. completely without depth or nuance. It leaves him with certain expectations -- generally quickly deflated by Japanese reality -- and it is this worlds-apart sense of character and place that allow for his would-be spiritual and meaningful journey: the radical remove from the familiar -- the routine and familiarity of his German life -- is a necessary step (whether real or imagined ...). It's purpose is solely that: despite his embrace of haiku-writing, Gilbert proves unable to meaningfully enter into and engage with the culture and society (and honestly, he doesn't try very hard): set in his ways, everything continues to be filtered through the hardened perspective he arrived with. (Some reviewers have taken issue with Poschmann's depiction/presentation of Japan, but it seems to me, for the purposes of her story, pitch-perfect.)
Mathilda, whom Gilbert clearly does feel strongly for, even as they are less than ideally matched couple, remains a strong presence throughout, and much of his trip is a process of him trying to explain himself (in quite stiff Germanic form) to her, in the form of his awkward communications with her. Even as they begin with the two completely at ends -- the first phone call, where Mathilda doesn't even believe he's in Japan -- Gilbert does seem to show some personal growth with regards to her and their relationship by the end, including in the touching finale. And Poschmann nicely sets the stage for Gilbert's growing awareness to that point, from a mention of when Mathilda came to visit him when he was teaching in the United States and they drove desperately around in an attempt to catch the changing-leaf season she was so eager to see to Gilbert forging past yet another site on his Japanese journey:
Gilbert already felt like a loose leaf anyway, so there wasn't much to be gained in Nikkō. More importantly it was vital to set some parameters for the journey, and he had set them: they had been tirelessly occupying themselves with pines for days and couldn't devote themselves to the innumerable deciduous trees along the route as well.And then, in the conclusion, Gilbert is able to look, and move, beyond the pines after all; perhaps there is some hope for him (and his marriage).
A beautifully turned low-key absurdist comedy, The Pine Islands is delightful.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2020
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German author Marion Poschmann was born in 1969.
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