“The Pine Islands” by Marion Poschmann

“Waves at Matsushima”, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, 17th c. (Wikimedia Commons) “Waves at Matsushima”, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, 17th c. (Wikimedia Commons)

From her early interest in Russia’s hinterlands to her recent focus on the culture and places of Japan, German poet and novelist Marion Poschmann’s writing continues its eastward drift. Her latest novel (and first in English thanks to Jen Calleja’s translation) The Pine Islands, which recounts the tragic-comic journey of a middle-aged German university professor who decamps to Japan (he dreams that his wife is cheating on him) and undertakes a Bashō-inspired journey once there, has been shortlisted for the German Book Prize (2017) and Man Booker International Prize (2019) and hailed as a “masterpiece” by Germany’s esteemed newspaper Die Zeit.

Despite their effusive praise, however, have reviewers largely overlooked the issue of Poschmann’s apparent Orientalism? From green tea, samurai films, bullet trains, suicide, haiku, Bashō, and Noh theatre to mysticism, “strange” food, and even a Geisha reference (omitted in the English translation), The Pine Islands contains an inventory of clichés. Admittedly, Poschmann’s irony-laden prose employs such clichés in order to expose middle-class German (and Western) stereotypes, but is she nevertheless guilty of fetishizing Japan through her representation, even appropriation, of its culture?

Recounted with an undulatingly ironic tone, which is replaced with a certain philosophical seriousness later in the novel, the third-person narrator introduces readers to protagonist Gilbert Silvester, associate professor and “humble researcher” of “beard fashions and the image of God”, who is regarded by his colleagues as “a reactionary aesthete” for his outmoded fashion choices (leather satchel, shirt, jacket). Such an insouciant take-down of middle-age men of letters signals the novel’s comic intent, which Poschmann uses to establish a critical distance from her protagonist’s largely uninformed cultural pronouncements (he picks up the classics at the airport bookstore in Tokyo), tone-deaf impressions (“the people seemed like they were made of plastic”), and generally disagreeable personality.

While waiting at a train station, Gilbert interrupts young Japanese student Yosa Tamagotchi (his surname an uninspired play on the eponymous handheld Japanese toy) from committing suicide and the two undertake a quixotic “project of abandonment” (the former his worldly concerns, the latter his life), retracing Bashō’s pilgrimage to the pine-clad islets of Matsushima Bay. The unlikely pair, however, lose track of each other at another train station, forcing Gilbert to continue the journey alone. Fact and fiction blur, with the reader left to wonder whether Yosa had merely been an imagined projection of Gilbert’s troubled psyche.


The Pine Islands, Marion Poschmann, Jen Calleja (trans) (Serpent's Tale, March 2019)
The Pine Islands, Marion Poschmann, Jen Calleja (trans) (Serpent’s Tale, March 2019)

In a Die Zeit profile, Poschmann indicated that she wanted to use the novel to explore ambiguity and the nature of reality. For a Man Booker International Prize interview, she reiterated the point and added:


Both [Gilbert and Yosa] wish to leave themselves behind, because their life situations and even their personalities seem too limiting to them. In this way, their ‘project of abandonment’ also becomes an inner voyage.


Such statements belie a reading of the novel as mere parody, suggesting instead that Yosa’s one-dimensional characterization—essentially a docile Eastern “Other”—should in fact be taken seriously, which speaks to Poschmann’s problematic use of Japanese culture and raises the thorny issue of Orientalism.

If the novel “definitely had to be set in Japan” because of the country’s landscape, poetic tradition, and clash between ancient and modern cultures (further clichés), as Poschmann insists, then the scales begin to tip in favor of a fetishized representation of Japanese culture. When one considers that The Pine Islands, along with her subsequent Japan-inspired poetry collection Geliehene Landschaften (2016), emerged after a mere three-month stay in Kyoto sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Japan, then the novel strays perilously close to self-parody (is Gilbert Poschmann’s literary doppelgänger?).

In the same Die Zeit piece, Poschmann also professes an interest in the “literary” (“literarisch”), and one is both rewarded and stymied by the literariness of her writing. There is Beat-like beauty:


The travellers to Matsushima were lunatics, moonstruck, eccentric. They composed their own sacred legends, everything was worthless to them apart from poetry, and for them poetry stood for the spirit’s path to nothingness. They were extremists, ascetics, mad for a certain kind of beauty, the fleeting beauty of blossom, the ambiguous beauty of moonlight, the hazy beauty of the secluded landscape.


More often, however, Poschmann’s overuse of adjectives in German, which is reproduced in the translation, can lead to gridlock:


Wilderness. Forests passed by bearing down from a great height, white-grey treetops, luminously swelling clouds that move quickly overheard. Over the multi-lane motorway, over the rounded crests of the mountains, the pale mounds floated on higher levels of the air over the endless rice fields, pristine, everlasting, out of bounds, this final natural landscape of  water vapour and ice drifted, rough, remote and rugged, bleak and enchanted.


Younger writers are often, and with good reason, warned against such excesses.


Despite her deliberate use of clichés, Poschmann seems curiously unaware of her own cultural biases. Had The Pine Islands been intended as a self-parody in which she pokes fun at stereotypically German cultural preoccupations (philosophy and poetry), then such a self-referential gesture would undermine her own training (German Studies and philosophy) and body of work (particularly her Japan-inspired writings). What she has in fact written is a novel about German cultural ideas—dreams (Freud), doppelgänger motif (ETA Hoffmann, Jean Paul Richter), landscape-infused subjectivity (German Romanticism), self-consciousness (Kantian subjectivism), travel fiction (Hesse’s Journey to the East, among others)—with a lacquer-thin veneer of Japanese motifs and references.

With a range of acclaimed books by Japanese authors addressing various aspects of contemporary Japanese society, from Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman to Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, have the Man Booker Prize Committee and its judges discounted authenticity for a western-derived fascimile?

Brian Haman is the Book Review Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. A former Fulbright Scholar, he holds a PhD and an MA from the University of Warwick in the UK and splits his time between China and Europe.