The Pine Islands

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is yet another novel about a middle-aged, male lecturer, Gilbert Silvester, entering a mid-life crisis. Believing his wife to be having an affair, he leaves his house for the airport, and from there travels to Japan. In his white hotel room, feeling as if he has fallen into an ice cube advert:

“He stood in the middle of the room for a while with absolutely no idea what he was doing there.”

While it is not quite Dante wakening in a dark wood, there are plenty of forest wanderings to come in a novel where, for all the earnestness of its two main characters, the tone remains comic.

Gilbert is profoundly aware of the mediocrity of his own life, complaining that while friends “less competent” than himself:

“…were settling down in their own homes with their families and routines, he saw himself forced into carrying out idiotic and meagrely remunerated work imposed on him by people he categorically despised.”

We soon discover that his academic subject is beards, but this does not prevent him having absolute faith in himself, with an arrogance that will not be contradicted. His belief that his wife is unfaithful, for example, is entirely the result of a dream, “an unmistakable warning from his unconscious to his naïve, unsuspecting ego.” On the plane to Tokyo:

“…he repeatedly reassured himself that he had not only done everything right, but that his actions had indeed been inevitable, and would carry on being inevitable, not only according to his personal opinion, but to world opinion.”

Gilbert’s arrogance comes in useful when he encounters Yosa Tamagotchi, a young Japanese man who is planning to commit suicide as he fears he will fail upcoming exams: “He was an only child and on the cusp of disappointing [his parents].” When Gilbert realises what Tamagotchi is planning he immediately begins to talk to him:

“Gilbert had read somewhere that that it was beneficial to start a conversation with a suicidal person to distract them from their thoughts.”

Gilbert distracts Tamagotchi to the point that he shares his hotel room with him that night, and they set off the next day to find a more suitable location for Tamagotchi’s suicide “following the papery authority of the suicide handbook.” Gilbert, however, is frequently unsatisfied by the suggested suicide spots, and quick to share this dissatisfaction with Tamagotchi in a forcefully manner:

“It’s too loud here, Gilbert informed Yosa in a dictatorial way.”

In the first half of the novel Poschmann is generally successful in balancing Tamagotchi’s quest for death with the comic tone of the novel. (There is one particularly funny moment when he and Gilbert are waiting for a bus to take them away from a wood where people traditionally kill themselves but it does not stop for them. Tamagotchi explains this is because it is the same driver as the day before: “He recognised us. He mistook us for ghosts.”) This is largely because, like Gilbert, we regard Tamagotchi’s intentions as not entirely serious:

“…this wasn’t a suicide from one’s own free will, from a serene mindset, ultimately it wasn’t an independent decision but a pitiful attempt at manipulation. Juvenile behaviour that made one ridiculous in death.”

This, however, is revealed to be a further example of Gilbert’s over-confidence, linked to his belief that he ‘understands’ Japan, though the depth of his understanding is confused by a single sentence in the opening pages:

“He had always assumed that, like him, everyone knew the Japanese classics off by heart, but standing in front of the shelf with the pocket books, he had to admit that he himself had at most watched only a couple of Japanese films during his lifetime and had never been able to recite so much as a haiku.”

Does he actually go from believing he knows the Japanese classics “off by heart” to realising he has very little knowledge of Japanese culture at all in one moment (further confused by him having watched more than two Japanese films on the plane)? It certainly doesn’t stop him pontificating about Japan throughout, and his relationship with the country is further complicated by his intention to follow the journey of Basho, whom he compares himself to in grandiose fashion:

“His own project of abandonment also entailed making a clean break… he would undertake a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.”

This is all very funny as long as we are meant to regard Gilbert only as a laughable figure, but in the novel’s second half it seems that we are to assume some development of his character, largely based around his failure to understand his wife’s desire to see the leaves change colour in autumn when he based temporarily in North America, a phenomenon he feels “provokes a hysterical euphoria.” In the novel’s final lines he is planning to invite her to Japan as the “leaves are starting to turn.” It doesn’t help that the wife – indeed every character apart from Gilbert – remains two-dimensional.

What begins as an amusing satire of a Western midlife crisis does not have the courage to lampoon Gilbert’s journey to the East. As it is difficult to see what he learns from his time with Tamagotchi, or form Basho, Japan begins to feel like window dressing, and what was breezy and refreshing at first becomes unconvincing and inconclusive. Its presence on the long list makes the absence of any Japanese literature all the more ironic.

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18 Responses to “The Pine Islands”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail) […]

  2. Caroline Says:

    I’ve heard good things about this but now I have my doubts.
    She’s a poet and highly regarded, I thought that the language should be very beautiful.

    • 1streading Says:

      It does contain some beautiful passages of nature writing (though also of rotting bodies) but I couldn’t square this with the generally comic tone. Eventually I just didn’t know how seriously to take it.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This longlist gets odder and odder. Definitely sounds unconvincing – I envy you and your colleagues your commitment…

  4. Tony Says:

    Call this a negative review? Watch out for mine, coming on Thursday morning UK time 😉

    Caroline: no, this is awful, and I read it in German.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve now had the chance to read your review and the comments beneath. I was certainly more positive about the novel’s opening but I think Nick’s comments about the ending being ambiguous are themselves a giveaway that the satire does not sustain throughout the novel.

  5. lauratfrey Says:

    Sounds bizarre. Wonder if there is any significance to the guy’s name being tamagotchi? Like the toy?

  6. JacquiWine Says:

    How refreshing to read a review that critiques a book so fairly, highlighting its best intentions alongside the inherent weaknesses. Nice work, Grant – now I know not to bother with this one at any point in the future!

    • 1streading Says:

      Well, the worry is that you put people off a book they might enjoy even if you haven’t! One advantage of prize lists, though, is they allow you more leeway to be critical as the book had already been singled out for praise.

  7. Tony Says:

    I’ve just published my review (https://tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2019/04/04/die-kieferninseln-the-pine-islands-by-marion-poschmann-review-mbip-2019-number-7/), and it has elicited a very interesting comment from the editor of the translation. Although he was commenting specifically on some slight changes in the process of bringing the book into English, he said that the book is supposed to be ironic and that Poschmann is criticising Gilbert. Well worth taking a look at the whole (lengthy) comment 🙂

  8. ‘Die Kieferninseln’ (‘The Pine Islands’) by Marion Poschmann (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 7) – Tony's Reading List Says:

    […] 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, […]

  9. Bellezza Says:

    Brilliant, brilliant review! You have written about a novel which is hard to pinpoint or even define very well, and I loved reading your thoughts.

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