Tortured by the evidence of a dream that implicates his wife in the act of infidelity, Gilbert Silvester wakes up to the image of his still reposing partner’s black hair, “spread out on the pillow next to him, tentacles of a malevolent pitch-black jellyfish.”

The Pine Islands, by Marion Poschmann Translated by Jen Calleja.
192 pages

A researcher and associate lecturer at a German university, Gilbert’s undistinguished career, low self-esteem and reputation as a “reactionary aesthete” metastasize into an existential crisis of the type not entirely uncommon to the philosophical northern European temperament. Packing a bag, he heads to the airport and catches a flight to Tokyo.

On his first afternoon there, Gilbert encounters and prevents a young Japanese man from throwing himself onto a railway track. Two misfits bent on abandoning the world, they resolve to leave the capital, the German carrying a copy of haiku master Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”; Yosa, his traveling companion, a book titled “The Complete Manual of Suicide.” The first stop on their itinerary is the roof of a dismal public housing block in Takashimadaira in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. In a delaying tactic he will deploy at subsequent destinations, Gilbert insists the spot is deficient in the qualities required for a dignified, poetic death.

Their next stop is an even more lugubrious venue for death. When they arrive at the parking lot beside the ghoulish forest of Aokigahara, one of Japan’s premier suicide spots, they find abandoned cars that “hadn’t been moved in a long time rotting away, covered with layers of leaves that had collected on the windscreen wipers, the hubcaps thoroughly coated in moss” — the property of owners who had never returned.

Encountering a “fully dressed skeleton … dried bouquets of flowers on a tree stump … ropes dangling from the trees,” the pair become so disoriented that they are forced to pass the night in a forest that has become a crypt hissing with the voices of the dead. As Yosa, soaked in native superstition, cowers in fear at the strange cacophony of sounds, Gilbert takes a more sanguine view, wryly observing, “That’s the way it is when you’re dead. … Total darkness, and nonstop claptrap.” With sunrise, Gilbert quickly fabricates another reason for the inappropriateness of the site.

Summoned in almost incarnate form as guide and literary deity, the figure of Basho pervades the book. As Gilbert follows the poet’s route to the far north, and his final destination — the pine islands of Matsushima — his musings on Japanese aesthetics and verse methods serve to decelerate a journey that, in an age of rapid trains and assisted pilgrimages, can be accomplished in unseemly haste.

Analyzing Asian culture in emails to his wife, Mathilda, Gilbert deliberates on the notion of “sublime depth … of such a balanced restraint that the less sensitive person, particularly someone from abroad, hardly has the chance to even notice it.” Here, Poschmann may be borrowing from the Japanese word “yūgen,” denoting unfathomable beauty and profundity, a concept sometimes invoked in writings on the Japanese garden.

Poschmann spent three months in Kyoto before writing this novel. During her residency at the Goethe-Institute there, much of her time was spent haunting the city’s gardens, a near devotional exercise she describes as a “physical and a mental experience, similar to the pilgrimage my characters are on.”

Eschewing the effusive — a common entrapment of foreign writers on Japan — the work contains observations that are starkly unflattering. Japan’s “gruelingly lengthy, exceptionally detailed, indeed devastatingly pretentious tea culture,” is one of them; a collapsing suburban district of Tokyo is compared to “Berlin-Hellersdorf”; another to “the outskirts of Moscow.” Even at the end of his journey, submitting to Matsushima’s enticement of resinous pines, salt-impregnated air and the herbal scents of plants, Gilbert is forced to admit that, “As always, an exaggerated amount of fuss had been made over a banal landscape.”

Reviewers have heaped praise on Poschmann’s novel. One or two have called it a small masterpiece. But, like Pico Iyer’s recent book “Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells,” “The Pine Islands” has been vilified in some quarters of the internet for its perceived Orientalism, an unexamined adulation of Japanese culture. Are the platitudes Poschmann employs her own, or those of her main character? Asked to clarify the point, she talks of Gilbert as a man who “had invested so much in being knowledgeable, and has to realize that he knows almost nothing in the end.” His perspective, she adds, is “one of a man in crisis, and it mirrors his prejudices, stereotypes and fears, and maybe his longings.”

This recalls the novelist, Martin Amis who, accused of misogyny, quietly pointed out that the voices of characters should not be confused with those of authors. Are we then, to judge a work of fiction by the words of its protagonists, or on the stirring quality of the writing?

The sheer delight of reading such fresh, well-crafted prose as Poschmann’s would suggest the latter.

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