This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Falling off the map
Pico Iyer, author of The Man Within My Head, talks to Alexander Bisley.
‘‘And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end,’’ Pico Iyer writes in an essay, ‘‘Why We Travel’’. He is admired for such characteristically perceptive and rousing writing. ‘‘A writer like no other,’’ Jan Morris once said. ‘‘As a guide to far-flung places Pico Iyer can hardly be surpassed,’’ the New Yorker says. From his Japanese home near Nara, Iyer, a multicultural Indian who also worked in New York and elsewhere, tells me he’s living 90 minutes from the beloved Kyoto he evoked beautifully in The Lady and the Monk: Kyoto and the Four Seasons. ‘‘A safe distance for keeping the sense of wonder and excitement alive. Even after 25 years here.’’ The most visited city on the planet bar Mecca boasts 17 World Heritage sites. ‘‘You will never get the better of Kyoto or get to its heart; Nara, by comparison, offers silence and emptiness and a vision of antiquity that is perhaps what many imagine when they think of Kyoto.’’ Iyer, now 56, first impressed readers with Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-so-Far East. ‘‘Lanterned nights in Kyoto so lovely that I almost held my breath for fear I might shatter the spell.’’ He returned to Manhattan, where he had lived before, in 1988, but wrote he was ‘‘Homesick – not just for the gentleness and grace that I had found in many parts of Asia, but also, and more deeply, for the gentler self it had found in me.’’ Still? ‘‘Those words are just how I still feel, though by now I perhaps feel them so deeply that it might be hard for me to put words to them.’’ Iyer disagrees the 2011 tsunami has changed people in Japan much, particularly how they think about their government. ‘‘Japan is an old and very seasoned culture that has been through 1000 years of calamity, warfare, natural disaster and more. It’s not in the nature of stoical, unbreakable Japan to be swayed by a passing disaster. The first law of Buddhism has less to do with the pursuit of happiness than with the reality of suffering: impermanence, extinction and loss. Besides, I fear the Japanese were sceptical about their rulers long before the tsunami hit them.’’ Iyer followed the Dalai Lama – his longtime friend and subject in the elliptical biography The Open Road (2008) – on his visit to the Fukushima plant a few months after the meltdown. ‘‘I met young Japanese who were flocking there to help their country in its time of need. My granddaughter was born in Tokyo 15 days before the earthquake, and although her home was rendered untenable by the shaking of the ground, she and her parents moved only a short distance away and picked up their lives as before.’’ Iyer hopes younger people who don’t know about Graham Greene – the subject of his new ‘‘counterbiography’’ The Man Within My Head – will respond to the idea of ‘‘someone occupying and haunting one’s imagination as Jay-Z or Kanye West might’’. At home, Iyer follows a routine. ‘‘I awaken early, with the light. Alas, in summer this is at around 4.30, so I far prefer winters, when I can stay in bed till much later. I always take a
c Pico Iyer explores inner foreign states.
Photo: DERECK SHAPTON
‘‘I’d dearly love to revisit New Zealand, but I’m not sure I have anything fresh to offer as a travel writer.’’
simple breakfast of toast and tea.’’ He goes to his desk. ‘‘Ideally to write, but sometimes just to gather myself and hope the words will come the next day.’’ He takes a good walk around the neighbourhood, before reading. ‘‘In late afternoon I head out again, usually by foot, for furious games of ping-pong with the local grannies.’’ He goes to sleep by 9, after dining with his wife, Hiroko. ‘‘Japan has a deeply traditional soul beneath its cutting-edge surfaces and in Nara you’re essentially walking into an 8th century world. I can work for five straight hours, read half a novel every day, and take care of often quite complicated business, and still, thanks to the absence of cellphone and TV and car and most internet, feel as if I have all the time in the world.’’ His wife sells punk clothes from Britain during the day, and is a metal fanatic who devotes herself to Metallica and other loud bands, he confides. ‘‘But next to her boom box she keeps a shrine and every day she puts out fresh tea and food for the gods. And, before she goes to work, she meditates for 30 minutes, waving incense around and generally pays her respects to the ancient deities.’’ Iyer spends several months a year in California, staying at a cherished Benedictine monastery near Big Sur (a spiritual home of the Grateful Dead-scored counterculture of
his teenage years), and visiting his mother, Nandini. He finds the Golden State increasingly alien. ‘‘I’ve always felt that California is best enjoyed by those from outside California, and in the dreaming phase of life.’’ Iyer finds himself less detached from Oxford, where his father, Raghavan, was a distinguished philosopher, and Iyer was born, first went to school, and later university. ‘‘Oxford, the place, the idea I’ve been fleeing all my life: Only when I hit 50, did I suddenly notice how beautiful it was and why so many people love to go there.’’ In Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, Iyer’s astute, elegant explorations included North Korea, Argentina and Australia. Might he write about these lonely islands? ‘‘I’d dearly love to revisit New Zealand, but I’m not sure I have anything fresh to offer as a travel writer. ‘‘I’m really trying hard to push myself into new territories, so that although The Man Within My Head had many foreign locations, it tried not to make those locations the theme or the central interest: inner foreign states and lonely places are probably more my interest these days.’’ THE MAN WITHIN MY HEAD, Bloomsbury, $39.99 Alexander Bisley is editorat-large of The Lumiere Reader.
SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2013