The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (translated from the German by Jen Calleja, Man Booker International Prize 2010)

The first thing I loved about this book was how it mirrored my experience in Japan this October. I could immediately relate to seeing Japan for the first time from a Westerner’s point of view. The cleanliness, the bare beauty, the efficiency, everything described was similar to what I noticed as well.

Gilbert Silvester has dreamed that his wife Mathilde has been cheating on him. And so he flies to Tokyo on a transcontinental flight, leaving quite abruptly.

Soon he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, who is poised to throw himself in front of a train because he is terrified he won’t pass his exams. Because his beard is trendy and neat, and Gilbert is a beard researcher, Gilbert decides to speak to him. Because Yosa is a Japanese young man, and therefore extremely polite, he interrupts his plan to talk with Gilbert.

Gilbert suggests there must be a better place for Yosa’s intentions. He decides to follow the poet Basho’s footsteps to Matsushima, “the most beautiful place in Japan, the bay of pine islands.” They would travel to the pine islands, taking the same route Basho took; it would be a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.

Somewhere along the way, Yosa disappears. We do not find out if he has changed his mind, or if he has gone elsewhere to fulfill his original plan. Several times, Gilbert thinks he sees him, but perhaps it was only a reflection in the tea bowl or in a dream.

Gilbert makes it to the pine islands himself. He writes haiku as Basho did, and explores his journey.

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Far away from home

pine trees as old as the stones –

fleeting clouds above.

This haiku examined the relationship between durability and ephemerality, the unremitting transitoriness of things, of travelling.

It is such a quiet kind of book that I didn’t realize its impact until I closed it. Only then could I see that the implications are universal. We are all ephemeral.

p.s. The night has passed since I finished this book and wrote this extremely brief post. I am still thinking about all the nuances within its pages, about the haikus and how difficult they must have been to translate accurately.

Typical of so many Japanese novels, The Pine Islands is more of a “slice of life”: dropping us in, and pulling us out, of the story before anything is truly settled. We take the pilgrimage with Gilbert, mimicking Basho’s travels. And the more I think about it, the more the novel has crept into my mind like a mist which will not readily dissipate.

(Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my copy of The Pine Islands.)