Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (2017; Trans. Jen Calleja 2020) was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2019. The jury describes it like this: “A quirky, unpredictable and darkly comic confrontation with mortality.” Her first book was published in Germany in 2002 and, since, her work has been consistently recognized and lauded there. The Pine Islands is the first of her books translated into English.

A reader’s success with this story resides in their comfort with travelling in Gilbert Silvester’s company. Gilbert is on the move and distraught because he has had a dream that his wife cheated on him; this spoiler-free passage illustrates some key aspects of his nature and his story:

He couldn’t recall later on whether he had shouted at her (probably), struck her (surely not), or spat at her (well, really, a little spittle may very well have sprayed from his mouth while he was talking animatedly at her), but he had at any rate gathered a few things together, taken his credit cards and his passport and left, walking along the pavement past the house, and when she didn’t come after him and didn’t call out his name, he carried on, somewhat slower at first and then faster, till he reached the next underground station, and disappeared down the steps, one might say in hindsight, as if sleepwalking. He travelled through the city and didn’t get out until he reached the airport.

Poschmann can write succinctly. The passage preceding this one is populated by a series of two-and-three-word-long sentences, as Gilbert confronts Mathilda (who denies everything).

So within a couple of pages, readers have a hint that it’s going to be the journey—more specifically, Gilbert’s recounting of the journey—that matters here.

Because, after all, one can break down a leaving into a series of minute observations, mechanics of a scene as Gilbert itemizes his packing process and movements.

Or, one can simply speak of travelling, of leaving.

When readers meet Gilbert, he has already travelled to Tokyo. From there, much of the book is preoccupied by his meeting Yosa Tamagotchi, a young man and fellow traveller, with a copy of The Complete Manual of Suicide in hand. For readers who have travelled to Japan, the movement between recognizable destinations will hold independent appeal, but Gilbert’s experience of various destinations is rooted in psychology rather than geography.

There is talk of trees and forests, visibility and presence, and the ghostly figure of seventeenth-century poet, Matsuo Bashō. Bashō is known not only for his haiku, but for a 2,400-kilomentre-long journey in the north of Japan which he viewed as a pilgrimage rather than a trek, an act of devotion to an earlier poet, Saigyō.

The Pine Islands is a short novel and its resolution is surprisingly satisfying; simultaneously, it’s the kind of work that would reward rereading. Gilbert’s questions about what we expect from and value in life, how we react when our expectations are not met, and how we navigate and create difficulty remain largely unanswered:

“A panoramic view. Haze in the bay, a few shapes, flecks much of it couldn’t be made out. As always, an exaggerated amount of fuss had been made over a banal landscape. From above, the islands just looked like mossy stones in the fog. Was he disappointed? He really didn’t know.”

More important is the question of what we do when we really don’t know the answer. It’s a startlingly relevant question for these times.