Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Book Depository: Hardback
Gilbert Silvester dreams about his wife cheating on him one night and immediately launches himself on a trip to Japan. He discovers the writings of Bashō and attempts to embark on a similar journey. Along the way he takes a young, suicidal student under his wing. A quiet novel with existential themes, The Pine Islands is certainly a unique piece of translated fiction.
In keeping with the plot, the novel exudes a dreamlike quality, which leads me to wonder if Silvester’s pilgrimage is real, or just another aspect of his nightmare. The inclusion of an unreliable narrator only adds to this sense, and for me, it works for the overall plot. However, I do feel that I missed out on something by reading the book in English (unfortunately, I cannot speak or read German). I say this because most of the reviews by German readers are overwhelmingly positive, whereas many of the reviews by English speaking reviewers seemed to fall on the more uncertain side. I don’t think this is a fault of the translator, but rather a cultural or literary difference between the two countries. I tried not to let this affect my opinions, but I do recommend reading the book in its original language if you do speak it.
Whilst I enjoyed the writing style, and the choppy, dreamlike prose, I thought Gilbert’s character was somewhat unlikeable. He seems to believe the world revolves around himself, failing to see reason and criticising those around him without scrutinising his own behaviour. He decides to befriend Yosa Tamagotchi, a suicidal student, but then continuously criticises him instead of encouraging him to seek professional help, which was exceedingly irritating.
I haven’t read any of Bashō’s writings, but the allusions to his work were interesting, and added an extra layer to the story. The descriptions of nature, in particular the pine trees, were beautiful, and I do wish there was more of those and fewer of Gilbert’s judgemental thoughts.
Had this book not been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, I’m not sure I would have picked it up. I am glad I read it, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend it, because I think some cultural aspects become lost in translation. I would read more from this author in the future, because I had no issues with the writing style itself – I think maybe this story was just not for me.
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