Saturday, 10 January 2009

Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk begins within the knowledge gained by the author - a cacophony of bumbles - and ends with the image of a man, alone in a room, reading a book. Actually, only one of these things is true. The book ends with a late-summer nocturnal event, but the literary nature of Iyer's dreams and aspirations brings us back, inevitably, to the point where they first were germinated: in the scholar's room.

Iyer makes much of the notion of 'space' the Japanese have. (It is salutory to recall that the book was researched in the last years of the 1980s and published in 1991 - a decade before the rise of China as a player in the international imagination.) In his book, Iyer's use of imagery strains to accomplish a similar trick.

So it is that we recall the night when Iyer and Sachiko first kissed. There's not a lot of talk about lust and sex, but presumably it all happened. He's a lot more forthcoming on the ways Japanese culture expresses itself in the consumer age, than on the ways he and Sachiko disported themselves in private.

Which is possibly as it should be but, still, it's a bit decorous. There are occasional hints. And the way that Sachiko finally realises her dream tells us that her relationship with this odd man from America has, truly, altered her way of being. If not her very being.

Iyer lives in Japan today and I would like to know what he thinks of this book now, that so many years - in fact two decades almost - have passed. I wonder if he understands more about the way the Japanese screen out knowledge as an inconvenience, as a threat to internal stability. I wonder if he understands the lack of human rights, in Japan. I wonder if he gets the fact that the individual - as we understand the term - does not exist there.

There are hints in the book, but one would expect a more mature understanding would bring more substantial fruits.

Regardless, this is an exceptional book. The beauty is in the detail, if not the poetry. Most of the latter is fairly routine. But it's adequate and designed not to fatigue with too much innovation. Iyer's expressive powers are more than adequate for the task. I suspect that the secret to his success is his great facility as a writer, and his hard-earned habits of application.

The book is really about how Sachiko remodels her life. As such, it is her we follow with our hearts as the narrative runs on into the 300 page bracket. It is Sachiko we root for, who we condemn, who we develop sympathy for. Sachiko is Iyer's great accomplishment.

Iyer gets along with people easily, it seems. But his creation - Pygmalion is referred to but not directly in relation to himself - has a genius for getting things right. In this sense, we feel that Iyer himself has been subtly changed. A later decision to base himself in Japan merely underscores this suspicion.

He liked what he saw. Initially, what he expected was some shadow of the literature he had consumed about Japan. Evidently, this love of Japanese literature was of long standing, and encompassd a great volume of it. Much more, one expects, than most other foreigners there had mastered.

So it is the particularity of Iyer and Sachiko that makes their story so easily generalised. Staying in Kyoto - the old, small, sleepy town in central Japan - removed Iyer from the frantic bustle of secular Tokyo. But it was a synpathetic environment within which to launch himself upon a study of the archipelago and its inhabitants.

Any other place would have spoiled the mix of Buddhism and literature. I'm not sure how the title links in with the story but, presumably, Iyer sees in himself something of the monk. This may be true.

We look forward to the day when the author revisits the theme. Perhaps he has stayed in touch with Sachiko over the years? Perhaps he has new stories to tell. Perhaps it would start something like this: "I once wrote a book about a striking woman I met while spending a year in Kyoto. Over the years we have stayed in touch. Most recently, Sachiko wrote to me from Holland, where she lives now..."

I'd like that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had just finished reading this book and upon research, found out that Pico Iyer did find himself changed by the experience of meeting Sachiko. In fact, he now resides in Japan, with her and her two children. Her name is Hiroko Takeuchi.