SUN AFTER DARK: FLIGHTS INTO THE FOREIGN by Pico Iyer. Alfred Knopf: New York, 2004. Hardcover, 223 pages. $22.95.
Henry David Thoreau traveled far and wide without setting foot outside Massachusetts. Pico Iyer enables us to do the same in his half-a-dozen travel books. He once described himself as a “global village on two legs.” He calls himself the product of a “movable sensibility, living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel.” In a radio interview with Scott London in 1996 in the series “Insight & Outlook,” Iyer confesses that taking planes was as natural to him as picking up a phone or going to school. “I fold my self and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag.”
He seems equipped by birth and upbringing for this nomadic existence. He was born in England to Indian parents, immigrated to California with them, was educated in Eton and Oxford, and went to graduate school in Harvard. “Home” was never a permanent reality for him, since he was sent to a boarding school in England, and was used to plane travel at least three times a year from an early age. During his adult years, a fire that destroyed his parents’ house in Santa Barbara pushed him further into homelessness. Traveling and writing about travel were second nature to him.
His books on travel however are not your average travelogs, promoting tourism. He has created a new genre, in the tradition of Paul Theroux, Annie Dillard, and W.G. Sebald. Iyer is more interested in how countries and cultures transform each other, and in observing cultural globalization as a byproduct of modern lifestyles. Iyer describes how the Japanese play baseball, but always within the parameters of their cultural politeness. In India, Iyer finds three different remakes of Rambo with a woman Rambo in one of them. In China, the irony of a Kentucky Fried Chicken parlor, a symbol of Western capitalism, standing next to the mausoleum of the father of Chinese communism Mao-Tse-tung, is not lost upon him (“Insight & Outlook”). In The Global Soul (2000), he refers to the rootlessness and displacement caused by the increasingly dizzying pace of life in the modern world, when life is lived out of suitcases, airports, video arcades, and shopping malls.
In his latest anthology of travel essays, Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign, Iyer invites readers once more to journey with him on a great adventure of the mind, and experience the opportunity to test their assumptions about the world, and life. “The physical aspect of travel is,” says Iyer, “the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know, and may never know.” Even when he visits a place not for the first time, it appears new to him, “magically rearranged.” The “foreign” is ever with us, a disorientation even in familiar environments, he says, because of our modern, shifting world.
For him, the best part of traveling is the contrast it provides with the affluence he has known in America. Sun After Dark is about him shaking his complacency and going off to the “poorest countries in various corners of the world.” He visits Cambodia, Yemen, Haiti, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Easter Island, and Tibet. In Cambodia, there are grim reminders of the utter devastation of the country by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng, the “notorious memorial to the Khmer Rouge killers,” has a large wall containing a map of Cambodia made up of skulls. The entire country is engulfed in murder and mayhem. Gaudy emblems of corrupt affluence overshadow Angkor Wat, a tragic reminder of a crumbling civilization. In Dharamsala, Iyer meets the Dalai Lama. Iyer finds that this pragmatic saint of our times, though famous as a speaker, has the rare gift of listening. In Iyer’s words, the Dalai Lama is a politician of conscience, “a canny Tibetan scientist,” who repairs old watches, tends sick parrots, and makes broken things whole once again. On a visit to Tibet, Iyer finds that the “real Tibet” of mindfulness and meditation has not totally disappeared.
In Japan, two worlds coexist: the ancient and the modern. A seventh century Buddhist festival is still celebrated in modern Tokyo. In the midst of all the trappings of a sophisticated technological civilization in this city, Iyer comes across vestiges of unspoilt nature. The Deer Park materializes suddenly in the middle of Tokyo. Busloads of schoolchildren as well as tourists come here during the day to learn about Japan’s collective past and see pristine Japan. By day, there is the clamor of modernity but at dusk, the place empties out and gives way to a multitude of deer, descending on the park as if to reclaim their territory. There is a peaceful coexistence between deer and man. Grandmothers tell the little ones that the deer are messengers from the gods.
Iyer’s explorations include not only places that can be located on a map, but also interior landscapes. At the very beginning of his anthology, Iyer describes the life of Leonard Cohen, the poet-musician who is not seduced by fame but finds peace in the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains, just outside frenetic Los Angeles. Flight from the past and into the past is the dominant impression one gets of the writings of W.G. Sebald, one of Iyer’s literary models. In a review of Kazuo Ishuguro’s novels, Iyer notices the Japanese author’s sense of “foreignness” wherever he goes, whether it is his birth home or adopted home.
The leitmotif of the anthology is a sort of Buddhist idea: the same person experiences different identities during different phases of global travel. This is the consequence of displacement and dissociation caused by jet lag. Perception feels like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. At the end of your flight, you are not the same person that you were when you started. Within hours of the flight, you are on a different continent, on a different plane of existence, and a different switching of emotions. There is, what Iyer calls, “a dissolution of the self,” a very Buddhist idea. It is no wonder that Iyer has found what comes nearest to a home in Japan.
|Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.|