- Book: The Pine Islands
- Location: North East Asia
- Author: Marion Poschmann
One day Gilbert Silvester ups and leaves his home in Germany, abandoning his wife Mathilda as she sleeps, and takes a flight to Japan. This is as spontaneous as it gets! He checks into a hotel in Tokyo with the works of Matsuo Bashō (The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book), written a good 500 years ago, tucked firmly under his arm. Bashō, poet, aesthete and innovator of haiku, mentored by Saigyō, inspires Gilbert to quasi follow in the footsteps of his own pilgrimage all those centuries ago, to Matsushima, the bay of pine islands (the most beautiful place in Japan). Bashō was inspired to leave all worldly things behind and Gilbert feels attuned to the great master’s work and ethos, and acknowledges this is a true calling; he has discovered a real sense of purpose!
Of the forthcoming journey – “The decisive question, however, is whether this route also leads to an inner understanding of the phenomenon of the Japanese black pine, so that at the end one is able to see a pine…” (a bit esoteric perhaps but stick with it!)
On the flight over, Gilbert has already pondered how tea versus coffee drinking can define a nation, and he is struck in Tokyo that the salarymen are, for the most part, clean shaven. What indeed does a beard – the ability to grow one or not, the type, the colour and more – actually say about a person? Yes, he is a lecturer of beard fashions in cinema! Amongst the many city suits he spots a young man, with a beard, who is behaving oddly and he realises he is about to take his own life. Meet Yosa Tamagotchi (I am sure there is an irony in the choice of surname, remember those little pocket-dwelling “animals” over which humans had power… or not?!) who becomes his companion on much of this journey of spiritual enlightenment.
Tokyo: “The passers-by gave off an air of perfection, absolute self restraint; an antiseptic quality…”
What can the black pines (which are male, the red ones are designated female) of The Pine Islands teach the novice journeymen? Plenty, it seems. First of all they travel this way and that, exploring areas where someone could honourably take their life – this forms a kind of therapy for a young man on the cusp. And finally, via diversions, they actually start their Bashō journey up to Matsushima.
The journey is the story, largely, sprinkled with thoughts, haiku and observations, which are all loosely conjoined, penned by a wry and reflective hand. The narrative is scattered like the pine cones from the surrounding trees; the story is a medley of smoke and mirrors, reflecting the modern day experiences of Japan. What you see is not what you get oftentimes as you negotiate your way through a very different culture.
The author is well known for her poetry and the writing is indeed lyrical, with a beautiful translation by Jen Calleja.
This is a beguiling novel to take on a journey to Japan. Recommended.