Translated by Jen Calleja and published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail, The Pine Islands has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019.
I read The Pine Islands in two sittings; at under 200 pages it’s not a long book, and was in fact the perfect afternoon read. The opening grabbed me right away. I love stories that dive right in to the action, and The Pine Islands does just that. The protagonist, Gilbert Silvester, wakes up from a dream that his wife is cheating on him. Her protests just convince him further of her guilt, and he takes off for the airport where he catches the first long-distance flight out. He finds himself in Tokyo. As a coffee-drinker, he has always ‘categorically dismissed countries with above-average tea consumption’, and so at first he is entirely unsure what he is doing there, and how to deal with the culture shock. What follows, however, is a moving and beautiful journey of self-discovery. And it is not just about Gilbert, either, as he befriends a suicidal young student along the way. Can his journey save more than just his marriage?
As he follows in the footsteps of the great Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, even writing his own haiku along the way, Gilbert Silvester takes the reader to some of the most stunning parts of Japan, ending up at the pine islands of Matsushima. The descriptions of the leaves, the trees, and other aspects of nature throughout the book are beautifully evocative, both in the original German and in Jen Calleja’s superb translation. I particularly enjoyed the use of colours, such as the subtle distinctions observed in the different shades of green:
Gilbert became engrossed in the diverse green tones while stumbling over branches and bracken with both bags. Supermarket green. The subtle green of a lettuce, the glossy green of a polished apple, bitter spinach green, tender fennel green. Zingy toothpaste green, conservative samani green. The swaying leaves before his eyes, he wanted to exercise a more refined distinction process, revel in the nuances, appoint distinct tones from the memory of the water colours in his school paint box, bilious green, malachite green, yellowish green, French green, while the wind mingled and parted the trees, making the colours fleeting and indefinable.
Other rich cultural details involve the descriptions of Japanese architecture and, above all, food. I’ve never been to Japan but The Pine Islands filled my mind with so many wonderful images and I felt like I had truly visited this amazing place. The plot is very engaging, and the writing filled with clever humour that makes it a delight to read. If you’re looking for a fairly short read, but one that will really transport you to another world, I definitely recommend The Pine Islands.
Originally published in German by Suhrkamp as Die Kieferninseln. English translation by Jen Calleja published by Serpent’s Tail (March 2019).