Armchair Travels

One whole quarter stuck in the same city has left me itchy. Barring a little day trip it has been a barren wasteland of wearying quotidian traveling. To make matters worse, folks are off on the holidaythat I should have been on. What’s a girl to do under circs like this? Well, start reading a travelogue :).

 Pico Iyer’s The Lady and The Monk’ was purchased in preparation for a trip to Tokyo. (Un)fortunately that trip didn’t quite happen.  The book is close to 20 years old and it shows. Iyer writes about how advanced Japan is; even orders in restaurants are taken on a computer. Quaint. It would be strange now to think of a restaurant that does not do its business with a computer.

In a more modern world, Iyer would have maintained a blog, but 20 years ago, writing a book or a series of articles was the best option.  Iyer lives out his fantasy (and mine!!) when he drops everything and moves to Japan with minimal money and no forwarding address to most acquaintance. He doesn’t know the language and has no schedule . His only contract is to deliver something to his employers at Time magazine at the end of his year in Kyoto. What results is a set of surreal experiences  as he learns his Japanese through poetry (imagine learning English only through Spencer or Donne or Keats!) and struggles to understand a culture that is completely alien to him. The acquaintances he makes in Japan are equally strange. Westerners trying to ‘find’ themselves in the orient as they spend years in monasteries or learning traditional zen painting or studying the intricacies of the tea ceremony, give a suitable backdrop of confusion to his increasingly ambiguous relationship with the neglected wife of a Japanese salaryman who takes him around the city. And all of this narrated in sentences that sound like haiku.

Iyer’s handicap in not knowing the language means he lives a completely internal life, so the book is as much a tour of his mind as it is of what he sees in Kyoto. Nice for a while, but it gets a bit much to read continuously. I don’t know if that is truly a fault of the author, though. Everything else of Japanes origin I have read – which is composed mostly M. Murakami, has that same, strong inclination to documenting the internal mental life of protagonists.

Either way, I am loving it. Cheap trip to a Kyoto of 20 years ago and after a long time, reading a book that has turns of phrase that sends thrills down spine. Happiness is mine.


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