The Pine Islands, by Marion Poschmann, Serpent’s Tail, 192 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1788160926
A bewildering beginning. A German man has a dream that his wife is cheating on him. He wakes up enraged and boards a flight to Tokyo. Why? He has no idea. Arriving in Tokyo, he encounters a young man trying to commit suicide. The German man, Gilbert Silvester, is an adjunct professor, specialising in the religious significance of beards in art and film. Because of his occupation, he can’t help but notice the young man standing precariously on the edge of the train station platform ‑ not because the young man seems in peril but because he has prominent facial hair, something Gilbert did not expect to find in Japan. Striking up a conversation, he learns that the young man is trying to commit suicide. To distract him, Gilbert suggests a trip to find a more poetic place to die. And so, this odd couple embark on a journey north to Matsushima.
People in Japan go to Matsushima for the scenery. Oysters too. But mostly it’s for the scenery. Countless pine-clad islands scattered around the bay make for an unforgettable sight. No less a figure than Matsuo Basho set off on his famous trip, recounted in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, because he “could hardly think of anything else but seeing the moon over Matsushima”. Basho travelled to Matsushima with his trusty companion Sora, much as Gilbert travels with Yosa Tomagotchi, the suicidal youth.
One of Japan’s “Three Fabled Views” (日本三景), Matsushima means “pine islands” in Japanese. Pines abound. And to see the moon shining down on the islands is something people dream of seeing someday. Over the centuries, many literary tropes evolved about the pines and the moon – and even today, Matsushima is considered to be one of the great “poetic places” of the country. Such poetic places are known, in Japanese, as utamakura (literally, “pillow poem”).
And this is a novel par excellence about utamakura.
With the suicidal youth in tow, Gilbert writes many emails and postcards to his wife, Matilda, back home. Probably realising that she has done nothing wrong ‑ or perhaps he simply has no one else to share things with – he writes to her about his impressions. Arriving in Matsushima, he tells her:
For centuries Japanese poets have taken pilgrimages to places of scenic allure, sought out wondrous places that are so inviting, so lovely, poems wish to settle in them. I too desired to seek out a place that so many others had visited in their travels. Matsushima, as they say, is a particularly plump pillow.
The Pine Islands illuminates the Japanese tradition of poets travelling to “pillow poem places” to write new poetry in communication with the poets who had gone there before them. And so Matsushima became the place of Basho and Sora, who themselves travelled in the literary footsteps of Saigyo, who wrote hundreds of years before them. Basho wrote poems alluding to Saigyo, of the moon and the bay and the pines ‑ but he also wrote in reference to famous lakes in China. In Japan, after all, the great explorers and travellers were great poets. And, each poet –as tradition demanded ‑ recognised the ancients, who travelled there before them, trying to put a little of themselves into this body of poetic “Matsushima”.
Columbia University professor of Japanese literature Haruo Shirane, in his book about Basho, Traces of Dreams, calls this the “poet as guest” and writes that “ … for Basho a poetic place existed both as a physical entity, to be personally viewed and closely observed, and as a medium for communing with the ancients, a means of exploring cultural memory”.
Matsushima is a place “plump with literary tropes”, or as Poschmann says, “a particularly plump pillow”.
Poschmann’s novel begins and ends in tropes. At first, it might be offputting to see all the usual suspects: of Japanese who don’t sweat and can’t grow beards, of suicide obsessions, and the inscrutable Japanese who bows and comes bearing tea. This stereotyping generated one bad review at the Asian Review of Books, not to mention some grumbling here and there online about the author’s orientalising. “How could this novel be shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, when there was so much wonderful work coming out of Japan in 2019?” people wondered. Two blogs mentioned Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (and translated spectacularly by Ginny Tapley Takemori) as being a better candidate for the prize.
Like many people, I loved Convenience Store Woman and was similarly puzzled when I first started Pine Islands, but within a few dozen pages I became enthralled by Poschmann’s gorgeous lyrical prose, not to mention her sense of humour. The book is funny. I wondered if it isn’t even more humorous in German. This could begin to explain the tropes. Because as inscrutable and beardless as our Japanese youth appears (it’s true, his beard is a fake), so too is our German researcher straight out of central casting. Always taking himself so very seriously, he is sure of his educated opinions, perfectly shined shoes, and his cultural preference for coffee over tea.
And yet, despite his perceived cultural superiority, the guy gets everything so wrong. (I am not just talking about Matilda either.)
Written by a well-known German poet, The Pine Islands is a poetic novel that is not just about poetry but is filled with poems. As they journey north, Gilbert and Yosa write haiku. Poschmann handles this wonderfully, as the novel is dotted with numerous haiku, written not just by Gilbert and Yosa ‑ she has also reworked Basho’s original words so they sit more harmoniously within the work. As a translator, I must sing the praises of the novel’s translator, Jen Calleja, who has created a fantastic work in English. Not surprisingly, she also has a poetry collection out. The poems, the walking in the footsteps of Basho, the disjointed feeling of being a foreigner “lost in translation” in Japan ‑ all this works so beautifully in this gem-like novel.
In the end, why do any of us do what we do? Most people I suppose do what they are supposed to do, what society or their parents or spouse tells them they need to be doing. But isn’t there also the pull of irrational forces? In the novel, we have two people who have fallen through the cracks of their own lives. And in the effort to find themselves again they embark on a journey. Like Basho before him, and Saigyo before him, Gilbert travels to Matsushima to see the pine trees and commune with ancient poets.
People in Germany would not travel so far just to see a tree, he remarks. In Germany, educated people like himself travel for cultural enrichment. To watch the news every night to gather information about scattering cherry blossoms and “filigreed leaves” –much less for a lowly conifer tree ‑ seemed to him like a useless custom. But by the end, he is hooked. Basho famously was so overcome by the beauty of Matsushima that he was unable to write a poem. Our “hero” not only writes his poems, but in the process is able to fall in love with life again.