For a non-Buddhist, travel writer Pico Iyer does a great job at achieving balance in a world of dissatisfaction.
By now, Iyer has given most of his adult life to the road. Born in Britain to Indian parents and educated at Oxford, he brings a transnational perspective to everything he puts on paper. His Asian adventures in the ’80s were anthologized in a wildly popular book, Video Night in Kathmandu. Another masterful work, 1991’s The Lady and the Monk, documented the first year he spent in Kyoto, when he met his wife, Hiroko. Both are now classics of travel literature.
Iyer’s new book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, orchestrates various motifs from a decades-long writing career, with Iyer focusing this time on destinations characterized by any form of conflict. Northern Ireland. Jerusalem. Sri Lanka. In each torn place he investigates the myriad ways people struggle to find paradise when surrounded by discord and suspicion.
In Sri Lanka, the British Garrison Cemetery in the Buddhist capital of Kandy is the only peaceful part of the country Iyer finds, the only place where he isn’t constantly reminded about the colonizer and the colonized.
“The only place where everyone rests together is the cemetery,” he writes. “The most human of communities, it was the least divided.” He echoes what Herman Melville observed about Jerusalem in 1857, a city he said was besieged by an army of the dead. “[Melville], too, had noticed how, in death, Greek and Roman and Armenian finally all slept together,” Iyer observes.
Then we meet the caretaker of the cemetery, a man of British descent whose impeccable English belies his eastern features. Like Iyer, he is of dual heritage. They both harbor complicated feelings about a British burial ground in Sri Lanka.
“I’d long been drawn to graveyards in the places where cultures cross if only because headstones put every kind of division in its place,” Iyer writes.
In 2008, Iyer published The Open Road, an eloquent portrait of the Dalai Lama that is thankfully not a biography in that it doesn’t go from point A to point B in any standard Western linear fashion. Instead, we get the Tibetan leader “In Public,” “In Private” and “In Practice.” Those are the three sections of the book, with further subdivisions like The Philosopher, The Mystery, The Monk and The Globalist—somewhat like Iyer himself, which is precisely the intention. The Dalai Lama is only one through-line, with Iyer’s own seemingly stateless career emerging as another through-line, since the two individuals have known each other for a long, long time. Their intersections over the course of decades glue the book together.
There were other books too, similar works of essayistic prose with their own through-lines: a crafted treatment of Iyer’s obsession with novelist Graham Greene, The Man Within My Head, and also more recent works titled The Art of Stillness and Autumn Light, the latter being a Zen-poetic meditation on the autumn season in Japan.
But The Half Known Life feels like a swan song of sorts, a culmination, a final dose of clarity and simplicity. The prose is effortless yet deeper. Themes from previous books work their way back into the composition, like motifs in the recapitulation of a life-long sonata. The effect is one of tying up all the loose threads.
It seems clear that Iyer had to write all his other books before writing this one. After spending a lifetime investigating the clash of local and global, of native and exotic, and after a career that placed him in numerous dimensions of conflict—political, ethnic, cultural, linguistic or philosophical—Iyer has written his way through the suffering and realized the folly of demanding external peace in a polarized world. Especially in the gritty underbelly of Varanasi, he finds holiness in the confusion and beauty in the garbage.
Although Iyer pulls inspiration from a matrix of spiritual perspectives, rattling off everyone from Merton to Melville, The Half Known Life is, underneath all else, a Buddhist-style process, even if Iyer doesn’t claim as much.
Who needs categories anyway?
Tue, 7pm, $20
Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park