ABANDON by PICO IYER. Knopf. 2003. Hardback. 354 pp. $24.

In Pico Iyer’s first novel, The Lady and the Monk, he dealt with a delicate love affair between a Zen initiate and a Japanese housewife, in prose as delicately shaded as a haiku. His next piece of fiction, Cuba and the Night, echoed the joyous music of that country in vibrantly narrating the course of a love affair between the English protagonist and his island girlfriend. His latest work, Abandon, returns to familiar terrain, exploring the interstices between cultures.

Here, the story centers on John Macmillan, an English graduate student at a university in Santa Barbara. Macmillan’s thesis centers on Persian poetry, specifically on the work of the Sufi poet Rumi. His hunt for the Shiraz manuscript, a famous lost work, sends him from Damascus to Seville and from Paris to Isfahan. All the while, mysterious hints about newly unearthed poems bubble up in conversations, in phone calls and in books left as gifts.

The Iranian diaspora of 1979, after the “second revolution,” resulted in manuscripts being spirited away from their home country to places as varied as Westwood and Jaipur. Now Rumi has become a mass media phenomenon, made trendy by pop culture icons like Madonna and Deepak Chopra. He is the best-selling poet in America, “displacing … the Dalai Lama as the reigning king of greeting cards”. Consequently, the documents have become very valuable, offered for sale in whispers at hidden bookstores, and coveted by rich collectors. As with any item that shoots up in value, fakes have flooded the field, making it very important for authenticity to be established before appraisal. Even Macmillan has difficulty distinguishing the genuine from the made up. And not just in his work, but also in romance.

Camilla Jensen, his lover, is an actress with a touch of the ethereal. She arrives in his life in an oblique fashion, as the sister of a stranger to whom he has been entrusted to deliver a parcel. For much of the story, she remains maddeningly elusive, arriving when he least expects her, and leaving with little notice. She seems to expect, indeed invite, rejection. She is guarded about her past, about everything from her parents to her interests, where she lives or when she works. It takes much sleuthing for Macmillan to find out that she had been previously involved with a friend of his and that she knows much more about his field of work than she lets on.

Plot development suffers in a story such as this. There are endless scenes of driving in the hills of coastal California and repeated visits to a just constructed house that the lovers occupy. There is no wrapping up of narrative threads at the end simply because they loop into each other, like a rope knotted onto itself. Macmillan gets an extension on his thesis. He solves the puzzle of whether a particular collection of poems was authentic. He learns more about Camilla’s origins. But these are relatively trifling issues, and scarcely enough to sustain a reader through 350 pages.

One way to look at this is to presume that the author shaped the language and substance of his story to reflect the qualities of its main focus, the verses of Rumi. The Sufi ideal is one of love, “the ravenous, consuming eros of the lover inflamed … their aim is, quite simply, to find a direct path to the divine.” Not plot or narrative definition, then, but all-encompassing passion, drunkenness with emotion, a surrender to the mystical power of words. Indeed the title of the book, Abandon, in one meaning, denotes a giving up of oneself.

Iyer delights us with his descriptive legerdemain and his love of wordplay. There are pinpoint paragraphs that expertly flesh out a suq in Syria or the clean lines of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert at Abiquiu. Strange, interesting new words pepper the text: “choristers,” “hermeneutically,” “surpliced.” It might have been enough to say that a neighborhood has winding streets. Instead, we are treated to a sentence describing it as “a riddle of lanes that snake around the Old City, this way and that, like a theological argument.”

Macmillan sends postcards from his various stops along the globe, quoting everyone from Thoureau to Rilke. He notes that the letters of his lover’s name is hidden within his own. Camilla, for her part, writes long letters that are both confessional and witty. She ends one, Homerically, by referring to herself as “your wine-dark C.”

One of the mysteries of the story revolves around a poem that reads in its entirety:
My hand
Your hand
His hand
No division in
Our hearts

Is this an authentic verse of Rumi’s? A fake? A lover’s peal of joy? A call to the divine? As the very last sentence in the book says, it is impossible to be certain. Poems are what we make of them.