In his fine new collection of 17 essays, Pico Iyer ("The Global Soul," "Videonight in Kathmandu") makes it clear that in addition to being a travel writer, he's also something...
In his fine new collection of 17 essays, Pico Iyer (“The Global Soul,” “Videonight in Kathmandu”) makes it clear that in addition to being a travel writer, he’s also something of a travel philosopher.
He still flies around the world at a pace that would leave most of us half-dead with jet lag (one of the best pieces in the book, “Nightwalking,” is about trying to make the most of the jet-lag experience).
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But the sights he sees while rushing around are often offered less for their own sake than as jumping-off points for ruminations on why we leave home, and how we change and challenge ourselves when we do so.
Iyer’s interest in the mystical fringes of religious experience, especially in Zen Buddhism, plays a role here. What he’s after in travel, he confesses, is an instructive “dissolution of the self,” such as Buddhist monks seek. Iyer just prefers to achieve it by covering thousands of air miles, rather than meditating for hours.
This semi-mystical bent, it should be said, does nothing to diminish his scene-setting powers. Take this opening to his essay about travel in Oman and Yemen:
“When the southwestern monsoon, or khareef, passes through the southern tip of Arabia, a heavy chill mist falls over the province of Dhofar, in southern Oman, and the temperatures fall twenty or thirty degrees below those of the rest of the Arabian peninsula. In the thick fog you can hear almost nothing but the ocean sighing in the distance, and when you travel up into the mountains it’s hard to see anything but women veiled in black from head to toe, only their mascara’ed eyes looking out, and locals seated on patches of green beside the road, delightedly picnicking in the rain.”
A damp, green, picnic-filled Arabia where “drizzle is imminent nearly always”? The thought is startling; the images utterly fresh.
Iyer brings that same startling freshness to his accounts of travel in Bolivia, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bali, Tibet, Easter Island, Haiti and what he calls “my parents’ India” (Iyer’s parents emigrated to Oxford, England, where Iyer was born). His takes on each country are necessarily short, and he doesn’t pretend to present the whole picture. What he gives us instead are odd, slanting moments when the unexpected or even totally incomprehensible confronts you with the limits of your own understanding.
Iyer’s Bali experience is particularly cryptic, reading almost like a folktale about demonic possession. He meets (is hustled by?) a woman who leads him off into a night where “she could read everything around us, and I could read nothing.” On his second visit to Bali 18 months later, she suddenly appears in his path “as if we had made a prior arrangement,” which was not the case. A near-total dissolution of his willpower ensues, and its after-effects follow him all the way home.
“You go into the dark to get away from what you know,” he says of the experience, “and if you go far enough, you realize, suddenly, that you’ll never really make it back into the light.”
Other encounters are just as challenging but a little more earthbound. In an essay on Cambodia, Iyer, despite feeling he’s “a relative veteran of all the moral and political conundrums of visiting difficult and wounded countries,” has trouble dealing with the grotesque disparity between his own material comfort in a first-class hotel near Angkor Wat and the utter poverty of those who have no choice but to serve the tourists.
Yet Iyer’s qualms about the humiliating “parasitism” of the tourist-dependent locals turn out to be a little misplaced. One Cambodian he talks to insists, “Now is a marvellous time for us.” And Iyer himself marvels at how children selling postcards and hawking T-shirts are picking up three or four languages despite their lack of formal education.
In Bolivia, he again finds “a poor country, yes, but one that did not look as if it ever expected to get rich” (unlike, he says, neighboring Peru and Argentina). Bolivia was where Iyer went after Sept. 11, 2001, “to get away from a world that was preoccupied with the war between the future and the past.” The country’s capital, La Paz, he writes, “seemed to sit outside all such ideas … off in its own dimension.” His wanderings in and around La Paz, combined with his memories of a visit he made there when in his late teens, result in one of the best pieces in the book.
Other essays stretch one’s notions of what a travel essay is. There’s a wonderful piece on Indian English: “It can seem as if a whole new language had been dreamed up by a clergyman in cahoots with a mischievous schoolboy.” (One example: a security notice in New Delhi airport that reads: “BE LIKE VENUS: UNARMED.”)
There are also profiles of four maverick figures who, in Iyer’s opinion, embody the experiences of exile and travel: the Dalai Lama who, in trying to keep the idea of an independent Tibet alive, “has had to enter right into the confusion and chaos of the Celebrity Age”; Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen, now spending much of his time at Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles; and writers W.G. Sebald (“Austerlitz”) and Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”), whose personal experiences of cultural displacement have given rise to striking novels. The Leonard Cohen profile smacks a bit of celebrity puff-piece, but the others have a subtle weight to them, with Iyer’s take on the Dalai Lama being particularly rueful and sympathetic.
Minor quibbles: Iyer is surely toying with the reader when he says that university town Oxford “is often known as the center of England’s largest motor works Great Britain’s Detroit, if you like.” And he’s just plain wrong when saying you fly west from California to get to Easter Island. (His larger point that Easter Island, strangely, shares a time zone with New York, even though it’s a straight shot south of Denver is on the mark. Blame Chile, which rules Easter Island and which, 1,600 miles to its east, is indeed on roughly the same longitude as New York.)
Quibbles aside, “Sun After Dark” in the variety of places it takes you, and the perceptive questions it raises along the way ranks as one of Iyer’s best books.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org