A German scholar travels through Japan with a suicidal young companion in this meditation on death and poetry, German novelist Poschmann's first book to be translated into English. Longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize.
Here is a short novel almost miraculous in its successful blending of potentially clashing tones ... The motivations of both men in rejecting society’s norms remain unspoken, and the quiet lightness of the story lends their utterances added resonance ... The Pine Islands is a story that doesn’t tie up loose ends but leaves themes scattered as needles on the forest floor, allowing the reader to spot their patterns. The best approach to this beguiling, unpredictable book is to follow Gilbert’s advice on reciting poetry: 'to let it affect you, and simply accept it in all its striking, irrational beauty'.
Eschewing the effusive — a common entrapment of foreign writers on Japan — the work contains observations that are starkly unflattering ... Reviewers have heaped praise on Poschmann’s novel. One or two have called it a small masterpiece. But ... The Pine Islands has been vilified in some quarters of the internet for its perceived Orientalism, an unexamined adulation of Japanese culture. Are the platitudes Poschmann employs her own, or those of her main character? Asked to clarify the point, she talks of Gilbert as a man who 'had invested so much in being knowledgeable, and has to realize that he knows almost nothing in the end.' ... This recalls the novelist, Martin Amis who, accused of misogyny, quietly pointed out that the voices of characters should not be confused with those of authors. Are we then, to judge a work of fiction by the words of its protagonists, or on the stirring quality of the writing? ... The sheer delight of reading such fresh, well-crafted prose as Poschmann’s would suggest the latter.
The premise of -- and indeed much of what happens in -- The Pine Islands is preposterous. ... Poschmann leads Gilbert on his trip with expert deadpan humor, the story full of neatly observed little scenes ... In a novel featuring so many dreams that seem so real, it's unsurprising to find that the distinction between the real and imagined often proves not to be clear. Despite Gilbert's seeming lacking of imagination, perhaps his mind's eye is in fact expansive -- and suggests another way of seeing the story in its entirety, a story that is arguably meant to be ambiguous as to its very nature. So also, even with its fairly neat ending, The Pine Islands is open-ended, leaving much essentially unresolved (and, in some ways, unclear) -- but hardly irritatingly so ... A beautifully turned low-key absurdist comedy, The Pine Islands is delightful.