Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pico Iyer's "Sun After Dark": Book Review

Compared to its predecessor "The Global Soul," I found this 2004 essay collection stronger in part. Although some of the pieces precede "Global" in their original publication in magazines, Iyer chooses wisely to gather them into as the title foreshadows a dimmer look at "flights into the foreign." The relentless jet travel returns, as defining Iyer; one essay here is all about jet lag, how one eats six lunches in one day.

Not that this has happened to me, but he charts one jaunt that took him thirty-three hours, from Santa Barbara to Oman, and he draws on certainly a far wider range of experiences than most of his readers, I reckon. "Since then, like many of us, I've run into the Tibetan leader everywhere I go--at Harvard, in New York, in the hills of Malibu, in Japan"--this from an essay on the Dalai Lama after Iyer tells of his own father meeting the DL when Iyer was three back in Oxford. Of course, we read Iyer for his wider perspective, but as in "Global" (see my 5/12 review) one cannot shake his air of entitlement that accompanies his evocations.

Neither can he, in part. The post-9/11 mood of many of these fifteen inclusions does force Iyer to confront the poverty and pain within those whom he meets. One strong essay, "On the Ropebridge," contrasts the wish-fulfilling image (as it were) of wondrous Tibet he brings as a Westerner to that land; another surveys the begging children in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge at Angkor as Iyer must compare their fate as skeletons, or as parasites, on the tourism that is seen to revive a shattered Cambodia. These sorts of Hobson-Jobson choices (a term he explains in a smart section on Hinglish, or how Indians adapt and alter English a half-century after independence) speckle these pages.

These essays, admittedly, do vary in quality. After a strong start with the first two (your reactions may differ, and I write as one less enchanted with the famous, rich or otherwise, than Iyer, despite my sympathies for the Tibetan cause), the rest offer ups and downs, and some merit more skimming than immersion. Iyer's talent may, I suspect, get rushed along by deadlines and compress itself by word counts for the magazines to which he contributes if "often in very different form" the originals that are the core of the essays anthologized. Like many essayists or travel writers, the uneven results do betray a sense that it's another two or three years, so it's another collection.

I suppose the "Open Road" book (see my 9/08 review) which a decade later followed the article on the Dalai Lama included some of the material here as the 1998 "Making Kindness Stand to Reason"; still, this affectionate portrait shows the subject with a real rapport alongside Iyer. So does the one before it from the same year, an elegant study ("A Gathering Around a Perplexity") of the willfully gnomic Leonard Cohen at his Mt. Baldy Zen retreat in Southern California. "Where else should he be, where else could he be, than in a military-style ritualized training that allows him to put Old Testament words to a country-and-western beat and write songs that sound like first-person laments written by God?" (31)

Many are shorter, more like vignettes, on Angkor or La Paz, Ethiopia or Bali, Easter Island or Haiti. These help balance the profiles and the reviews of W. G. Sebald and Kazuo Ishigawa; I can see why he reads Ryszard Kapuściński--Iyer appears to channel his style in some shorter entries, for better or worse. There's not many surprises here; that consistency may ground Iyer or it may make him mundane, for all his globalized enthusiasms. He tells us what he sees, but remains often possessed of considerable sangfroid, even if he convincingly reports the oddity of so much jet-lag from his Japanese home and his long flights to Santa Barbara to see his mother, so often these days.

The one piece that throws me as it did him is the end of his Bolivian stint, when he visits, along with other tourists, a prison--arranged it seems by the inmates who call the shots. Here, I found as with Graham Greene or Kapuściński the jolt of the sudden lapse from civility to brutality. You don't know, for once, what happens next, and Iyer in the telling improves on his experience by not telling us the whole story, but by editing, as if a dramatic film recreating the event, to heighten the unease he feels. Along with that sustained passage into the unpredictable, the more familiar encounters with Cohen and Dalai Lama essays were my favorites, and the jet-lag and Tibetan accounts runners-up. Iyer, by focusing less on his elevation above so many of his compatriots, in his best journalism manages to remind us of what he has in common, as do we, with the diverse peoples he keeps finding and the conversations and reflections he manages to record, relate, and revamp. (Amazon US 5-5-12)

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