Wednesday, April 24, 2019


review by NYT reviewer Phillip Lopate

The attraction of Anglo-American writers to Japan as the source of an alternate way of being is a long story, going back to the 19th century (Lafcadio Hearn)...
Pico Iyer — globe-trotting TIME magazine journalist and travel writer — says he first  fell in love with Japan when he was 26.
Born in England to Indian parents who later moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., he attended graduate school at Oxford and Harvard and then went to work for Time magazine.
On a Tokyo stopover while returning from a TIME magazine trip to Hong Kong, he was enchanted to find “a world suddenly intimate and human-scaled. … By the time I boarded my plane in early afternoon, I’d decided to leave my comfortable-seeming job in New York City and move to Japan.”
He met a Japanese woman who left her husband and moved with her two small children and the author into a tiny apartment. In Japan, he notes, people accommodate themselves to small spaces, and so he and Hiroko have for 25 years.

The book ....besides Iyer’s elegantly smooth prose style and gift for detailed observation, is a circling around the theme of autumn in Japan and this autumnal period in his own life as a man in his 60s now.
Self-described as having a restless “‘birdlike’ traveler’s temperament,” he spends half the year tending to his aging mother in California or reporting on subjects like “the warlords of Mogadishu,” but flies back to Japan each fall.
This season teaches him the lesson of impermanence, the inevitability of decay, and “how to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying.”
Not much plot to speak in the book:
Readers can watch Iyer going through his daily rounds, dropping in on his local ping-pong table tennis club, visiting his mother-in-law in her nursing home, recalling scenes from the past.
Iyer’s wife Hiroko makes for a marvelous presence, zooming away on her motorbike to her job in a boutique, cleaning the house briskly like a tornado or dashing off to honor dead ancestors at shrines and grave sites.
Hiroko is the book’s motor, and Iyer is in awe of her energy, even as he says, a bit condescendingly: “It’s one of the qualities I most admire in her: She doesn’t stop to think” and “I have a wife who reminds me with every gesture that the only impulses to trust are the ones that arise without thought.”
Hiroko strikes me as more quick-witted than thoughtless.
His own self-portrait is dimmer. He comes across as a modest, kind, gentle man, somewhat colorless, as though trying to practice spiritual erasure of the ego.
He says he had moved to Japan “to learn how best to dissolve a sense of self within something larger and less temporary” an admirable pursuit, though problematic for autobiographical writers.
In a way, his attraction to Japan can be seen as an attempt to hold onto its exotic, eternal appeal — to his partly idealized picture of what the East has to offer an expat Asian Person of Color in the way of healing. His parents were both from India, and his complexion is not white but brown.
Now in his 60s, Iyer like trying to communicate his tentative revelations about life. There’s much wisdom in what he says, though some of it comes close to platitude.
But then, perhaps it’s the nature of hard-earned wisdom to sound like something we’ve heard many times before.