Imagine waking up from a nightmare in which your wife is committing adultery. After listening to her vehement denials, how do you react? Do you storm out of the house and head for the nearest watering hole to drown your sorrows? Do you send a nasty email to Freud and demand that he keep his cocaine-fueled nose out of your dreams? Maybe you apologise for having a suspicious unconscious and suggest her favourite restaurant for brunch? If your name is Gilbert Silvester, the middle-aged protagonist of Marion Poschmann’s novel, The Pine Islands, you grab your passport and money, dash out the door, and race to the airport for a flight to Japan without any particular conscious rationale for that destination.
The Pine Islands describes an absurd road trip taken by Silvester and a young, suicidal Japanese man named Yosa Tamagotchi. After interrupting Yosa’s attempt to throwing himself in front of a train, Gilbert convinces the young man to accompany him on a “pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing” around the cliffs and mountains of northeastern Japan. The trip’s goal? To find a spiritually acceptable location for Yosa to kill himself. Their trip will follow in the footsteps of Matsuo Bashō, the 17th century Japanese poet/philosopher. Although Gilbert accepts Yosa’s right to end his life, he expresses disappointment in the lack of spiritual integrity manifested in some of the locations to which the young man is drawn: Japan’s suicide forests1, which are trendy places to which some potential jumpers drive, abandoning their cars to parking lots that resemble automobile graveyards, and leap to their death. Gilbert derides such
“juvenile behavior that [makes] one ridiculous in death. . . . If one’s intention was that at least death would give a lost life dignity in retrospect, then this method . . . [was] doomed to fail.”
Although suicide is a dominant theme of the novel, it eschews overt discussion of morality and instead explores whether the value of a life is heightened (or degraded) by the actual form of its ending. Both main characters have been battered by life. Silvester is an underachieving, pretentious, pedantic academic who researches the history of beards and their impact on film, an outsider who neither follows sports nor eats meat. A wardrobe makeover fail results in “postmodern ties and neon-coloured pocket squares.” Tamagotchi, in his early twenties, is slightly effeminate, was bullied in his youth, and is deeply depressed by his dreary job prospects.
While embarking on what he calls his “project of abandonment,” which requires “making a clean break,” Silvester will undergo a life-changing transformation that is sharpened and modulated by the haiku of Bashō and the natural beauty of northeastern Japan. Silvester will eventually conclude: “What is ultimately required is a state of mind that allows the sublime to be seen everywhere.”
For example, Gilbert remembers a hot day when trees provided shade for him. He’s grateful now for the majestic “gnawing beauty” of Japanese pines, suddenly realising that the trees from this memory were also pines. But back on that day decades years ago, he didn’t even know the names of the trees; he failed to confer the least bit of respect on them: their names. He is ashamed of his previous attitude and ignorance: “He hadn’t known they were pines, they were nothing more than handy parasols.”
Poschmann also dramatises Gilbert’s transformation through the phone calls and postcards to his wife. After he arrives in Japan, they exchange frantic, exasperation-filled texts and calls. She is sarcastic and sceptical that he’s actually in Japan. He characterises her failure to answer his texts as “an outrageous affront” and complains that “she hadn’t asked even once how he was.” His first few chatty letters/postcards are travelogues completely denuded of warmth or depth. However, he sheds such platitudes about shrines and weather and shares his thoughts about Japanese poetry, the aesthetics of novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and the majesty of the Japanese pine tree. At the beginning of the book, his wife’s hair resembled a sea monster. Now at the beach “thin black seaweed [swaying] in the water” evokes a memory of how her hair “unfurled when she lay in the bath, slender eelgrass, its buoyant toing and froing.”
The ending of the novel concerns Silvester’s ambiguous project of abandonment that tolerates (without advocating) suicide. For example, he expresses concern about seafood that might be contaminated by radiation from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Does this attitude reflect a desire to live? Or does it show that he hasn’t completely outgrown his previous pedantic, fussy self? Gilbert’s mindset:
“He once more closed his eyes . . . sunk deeper into his exhaustion, allowed himself to be pervaded by the wind, by the scent of the pines, by the breath of the islands.”
His petty squabbles, disappointments, and dissatisfactions seem gone.
This final passage gracefully plays the death-as-a-journey trope card. Gilbert’s thoughts here again echo Bashō:
“Learning to die. The journey that serves to distance oneself from everything. . . to get closer to something, was nothing more than a contemplation of the space that resulted from the journey itself. A move that followed the expansion of the mind. . . . One follows the subtle shifts, the illusory imagery, one really hopes to become clearer about one’s own self, that most elusive of things.”
Without revealing spoilers, Gilbert experiences a moment of clarity (or hallucination) that brings down the curtain on his project of abandonment in the novel’s surprising but inherently satisfying conclusion.
Any Cop?: I’m so impressed by this well-written, intriguing novel that I can’t wait to share my ARC with my luddite sister in Seattle, oh wait, damn, she doesn’t do pdf files. . . I guess I’ll have to buy a copy for her.
1Versions of the suicide forests and cliff locations characterized in this novel do actually exist. I’ve seen one in Fukui prefecture that has a warning plaque and a telephone booth from which one can make a last-minute call for help.