On Pico Iyer and His Books

I did not discover him by accident. I remember Pat Evangelista quoting a snippet from Why We Travel in her Rebel Without A Clue (now Method to Madness) column, in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Then I went on looking for more of his essays like the one on Solo Travel and found myself going back to his travelogues from time to time. I would like to constantly lose myself, and then find myself.      

The first Pico Iyer book that I got is The Lady and The Monk which I discovered by accident at Fully Booked. I was looking for a copy of Tropical Classical which I saw in one of the shelves like a month before that. To my surprise, the bookstore personnel lavished me with seven books: The Global Soul, Tropical Classical, The Lady and The Monk, Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling Off the Map, Cuba and The Night and Sun After Dark. I was not familiar with his books back then but I had read that his new book, about the Dalai Lama, was going to be published in late 2008 or early 2009.

I had an instant interest in Falling Off the Map having fallen off–literally–North America to Chile and Argentina. It talked about “lonely” countries and proposed that Argentina, for one, is because of  some lost heritage which I couldn’t reconcile at the time having seen how much it has preserved a Hispanic culture. But then, I have not really lived there and stayed for just a week so I cannot tell; besides, the only city I went to was its colonial capital. I thought I could let go of the book after scanning a few pages.

I fell in love with The Lady and The Monk having been previously “infatuated” with cultural crossings. I was trying to look for some connection with the main characters and to their story apart from the fact that Zen Buddhism, for the first, after the longest, time, again, rang a bell. I was reliving a supposedly buried past, reopening a supposedly closed book–no, closure is in question.

I loved the book because of Iyer’s (the first impulse is really to say Pico’s) clear depiction of Japan and the Japanese heart. It captured the silences in the temples and the intertwined fates of monks and women that is exalted in Japanese poetry–sensual, like a burning incense. I find it absorbing because of his and Sachiko’s startling commonalities–a fascination with books, and their favourite books. Iyer’s heart listens as his mind sharply observes.

I bought The Lady and The Monk for roughly six hundred bucks at Fully Booked and found the same book at Booksale for eighty pesos a month after. The author deserves the higher price, I consoled myself–besides, the one at Booksale looked a little older and dull.

But I think that life is, more often than not, fair. I went back to Booksale a week after and found a crisp copy of Sun After Dark for one hundred twenty-seven pesos–the regular price of which, at Fully Booked, is more than six hundred bucks. The spine is slightly creased but the book looks really new.


Sun After Dark  was more absorbing, at least to me, than The Lady and The Monk–contrary to what some, in goodreads, find to to be a loss of momentum.

“But the true subject of Sun After Dark is the dislocations of the mind in transit. And so Iyer takes us along to meditate with Leonard Cohen and talk geopolitics with the Dalai Lama. He navigates the Magritte-like landscape of jet lag, ‘a place that no human had ever been until forty or so years ago.’ And on every page of this poetic and provocative book, he compels us to redraw our map of the world.”


The chapters on Cohen, the Dalai Lama and W.G. Sebald stand out–you get a piece of them, and that makes you want to read more about them.


Cohen is very refreshing, introspective and eloquent. The book mentions that this “self-tormented soul” once claimed that he had torn everyone who reached out for him and yet “ended his most recent collection of writings with a prayer for ‘the precious ones I overthrew for an education in the world.”


I also admire how the vibrant Pico was able paint the dark and gloomy Sebaldian travel account and writing. If anything, the Sebaldian disposition is probably an antithesis of Pico’s.


Sun After Dark is insightful and contemplative. It makes you stop and think. Somebody suggested that Pico, in the chapter about the Dalai Lama, had not been successful in offering an answer to the predicament of Tibet which I believe is not the goal of the book. The question of which is not what solution Sun After Dark (out of Pico’s conversations with the Dalai Lama) could offer but, I think, how much interest it can rouse in the reader to discover Tibet, to try to understand its struggles and to join its cause–which is the very cause of the Dalai Lama.


Early this evening, I dropped by Powerbooks to check if the “only” copy of The Open Road is still in the lonely shelf where it has been sitting for two-to-three months already. I had been battling in the past whether I should buy it for a thousand bucks or wait, indefinitely, for a copy at Booksale. I panicked a bit when I didn’t see it–initially–and grabbed it when I realised I was just not looking thoroughly.


Now, I’m off–to another journey.  

*the photo of my Sun After Dark book was taken by my “paparazzi” friend, Mian–more of her photos are in http://cjaey.multiply.com/


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