In this unsettling novel, shortlisted for the 2019 International Man Booker Prize and just published in the US, an academic expert on the history of beards in cinema reads Bashō and tries to help a stranger find the perfect spot to kill himself.
Two men set off across Japan in search of the perfect spot to commit suicide. It’s not your traditional travel story, let alone an ideal vacation, but Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands offers an encounter between Eastern and Western literary traditions that makes for a ghostly, unsettling trip.
Poschmann is a well-known figure in Germany, a respected writer whose work spans different genres (poems, short stories, essays, novels) and has been distinguished with accolades such as the Klopstock and the Wilhelm Raabe literary prizes. The Pine Islands, originally published in Germany in 2017, is her first book to be translated into English. It was shortlisted for the 2019 International Man Booker Prize after being published in the UK last year, an auspicious anglophone debut that lets us hope that more translations of her work are soon to follow.
The novel begins, banally enough, with a husband-wife argument. Gilbert, a middle-aged college professor, has a dream in which his wife cheats on him. The details of the dream are never revealed, and neither are their fights about it, but Gilbert can’t help but view the experience as an “unmistakable warning from his unconscious to his naive, unsuspecting ego.”
He suddenly decides to leave all of that behind and to board a flight to Tokyo.
It’s the start of a journey whose purpose remains elusive through to the end of the book. Gilbert expresses interest in seeing the pine islands, a collection of over 250 islands in the northeastern bay of Matsushima, but there seems to be no higher motivation for the journey or his seemingly random choice of destination. Gilbert’s not exactly traveling for self-improvement or to work out his marital problems. Sometimes a cigar is a just a cigar; a trip to Japan is just a trip to Japan.
Poschmann’s writing eschews the detailed accounts of inner life that seem mandatory for so-called literary fiction in the English-speaking world nowadays. But what her novel lacks in intricate psychology and complex characterization it makes up for with a fast-moving plot and smart cultural observation, all of which arises from the fact that Gilbert is a fascinatingly mundane protagonist. He seems to have no friends. No passions. His field of expertise is the history of beards in cinema, and that has, not unexpectedly, yielded him little recognition from the academic community. As Gilbert’s plane touches down in Japan, there’s a sense that he will be far outmatched by whatever awaits him.
On a Tokyo subway platform, he meets a young man named Yosa who is, by all accounts, even more mundane than Gilbert. Yosa wants to throw himself in front of a train not because of serious failure or loss but because “he was afraid he wasn’t going to pass his exams . . . his marks were good, but maybe not good enough.” These two inconsequential men complete each other, in a way, and much of the book rests on whether either will actually learn something by spending time with the other. Yosa agrees to delay his suicide on the condition that they seek out a “better” location for committing suicide—one that would imbue some honor on the whole experience.
They set off to the Imperial Gardens, Aokigahara forest, Sendai, the kabuki theatre in Ginza. They miss more spots than they hit, and those they do hit are themselves hit-and-miss—both for Gilbert and for Yosa. Neither of them can agree on where to go next, and even after compromising, one of them is always cross about having to change the itinerary. It’s an effective way of stripping back the romantic idea that a journey through the East might be “magical” or “perfect” somehow. Their experience is more real than that, taking into account that even the smoothest trip can’t avoid late buses and packed train cars.
It’s also because Gilbert travels with a refreshing objectivity. For every moment that he ponders “pines in the fierce afternoon light, a void, a nebulous black seen through incessant blinking,” there is another moment in which he chafes at the small, everyday cultural differences as if they were personal affronts. In one moment when he and Yosa are resting in his hotel room, Gilbert launches into a petty grievance about Japanese bathrooms:
The toilet apparatus didn’t only offer warm flushing water and a heated toilet seat, it also functioned as a stereo with a wide selection of soundscapes including the sea, rain showers, waterfalls of various heights, and babbling brooks . . . The mania with cleanliness in this country had gone so far that they even wanted to flush away filthy noises with water sounds.
The book spends an especially long time on their visit to the supposedly haunted Aokigahara, better known as the “Suicide Forest” on account of the hundreds of people who have hanged themselves from its trees. Their trek is creepy and ominous but also weirdly beautiful and even somewhat quaint. “The forest opened its black wings, closed in around them, drew itself closer and closer together with a sigh. Who is one fleeing when entering this forest?” Gilbert is not one for ghost stories—he is too practical for that—but Poschmann also never rules out the possibility that maybe he’ll be wrong.
Gilbert and Yosa’s journey mirrors much of The Narrow Road to the Interior, a travelogue written by the seventeenth-century master of haiku Matsuo Bashō, who was himself trying to mirror the travels of Saigyō Hōshi, a tenth-century Japanese poet. Bashō considered himself in conversation with Saigyō, and Gilbert considers himself in conversation with both of them. As he closes in on the pine islands, the writing becomes more spiritual and introspective—and also kind of abstractly intertextual, in that he starts to write haikus that are supposed to have meaning when juxtaposed with Bashō’s.
Perhaps Poschmann wanted to draw a poetic line through history. Perhaps she thought that poetry would be the best way to encapsulate northeastern Japan. Or perhaps she thought Gilbert’s deeper motivation for escaping to Japan was best expressed in verse. In any case, it’s hard to tell what to do with a haiku such as “A whole rice field / will have been planted / before I leave the willow” when it is presented at the center of the page. The work of parsing through such lines is best left to academics in Comparative Literature departments. For the average reader, meanwhile, these haikus at least accomplish a mystical effect, one that manages to create a little magic out of Gilbert’s trip after all.