it's generally understood in Japan-specialist circles that books on Japan, and indeed Japanese authored fiction, generally fall into two categories: the books on the illusion of Japan (1) or the books on the gritty reality (2). it's considered a mark of taste to prefer the latter; you are 'daring,' 'hard,' 'tough,' perhaps 'manic,' 'mean,' 'cool,' or 'strict' to find, review, read, enjoy the underbelly stories; the stories about criminals, drug-use, beatings, the underclass, the poor, the weak, rather than "the beautiful cherry blossoms of Japan, and how they swirled around me as I navigated the mists climbing the hill to the whoppermill castle, upon which I spied the first glint of an autumn approaching, samurai, sumo, geisha, My Japan." (bwahahahah) the difference exists as well for Japanese writers on Japan: Ryu versus Haruki Murakami, Mishima Yukio vs. Banana Yoshimoto, Tanizaki and Dazai and to some degree Soseki versus a thousand lesser known writers who time and historical opinion have confined, duly, to the dustbin.
Conde Nast's printed review at the beginning of Lady and Monk seems to capture Pico Iyer's achievement best:
Iyers get as deep into the Japanese soul as a perceptive foreigner can...a love story unique in the annals of travel writing.
for what Iyer is attempting--the cherry blossoms and sweeping autumn leaves swirling around temples and Zen contemplation of Kyoto, as I begin to meet more and more regularly with a thirty-year old married woman who seems to be afraid to unfold her wings and let fly--he has achieved all that is possible for this task. but since he belongs to the school (1) of Japan, the elevation of the illusion, the obsession with the love side of the love-power equation, his work is necessarily limited, and he fails to excite a genuine breakthrough in J-literature, even as he undoubtedly manages to charm ten of thousands of readers and create a boy's romance story.
Iyer's book seems to move from an Indian's philosophical approach to a British realist over the course of the travelogue, but while his clear lucid prose invites entry into his more read 'Video Nights in Katmandu,' it's also clear that his talent does not lie in the island country. the work deserves its repute as a solid piece of craftsmanship and a welcome addition to J-lit, but it is not groundbreaking and it is not bold. the clash between Indian upbringing, Oxonian manners, California in-knowledge, and the setting of Japanese austerity is at times lyrical, but there's no especial reason to make this a book you pack into a steamer case when you switch countries--it's fine to know it exists in public libraries across the developed countries, but never something to invest in terms of the weight-meaning tradeoff when you're on rails or carrying a rucksack.
earns points for skill of writing, for Iyer's extremely well-read background and philosophical readings at Oxford (by which we gain some of the Derrida-post-structuralist tradeoff against Japan's empire of no-meaning-- Barthes was it?), wins points that Iyer knows his limits and doesn't go past, but belongs to the category of foreigner who one generaly leaves to their own take. a pretty work.
These sunny, baffling sentiments were everywhere in Japan--on T-shirts, carrier bags, and photo albums--rhyming, in their way, with the relentlessly chirpy voices that serenaded one on elevators, buses, and trains; it did not take a Roland Barthes to identify Japan as an Empire of Signs. These snippets of nonsense poetry were also, of course, the first and easiest target most foreigners in Japan, since they were often almost the only signs in English, and absurd: creamers called Creep, Noise snacks that came in different colors, pet cases known as Effem...Every newly arrived foreigner could become an instant sociologist...- Iyer, p. 220
A bold deconstruction, but as about as a non-speaker can get into interpreting the Japanese world. And yet Iyer married a Japanese woman, so who can plumb the mysteries of this 200 IQ double Harvard- Oxford grad and world traveler? Lady and the Monk is redeemed, partially, by musings on both obscure and well-known Zen thinkers, existentialists, Jewish New York philosophists and -ers, and his characterization of the "in-out" cycle of airport-driven life is spot on, but it's hard to escape the feeling that he would have benefited from more language acquisition before his foray, and it's not clear Iyer really "gets" the heart of the story he attempted. plus points: lucid prose, some ability to minimalism where appropriate, emotionally fine-tuned scenes; negative: a tourist's eye superficial look at Japan, little appreciation of the inside dynamic.
14 March 2013
what a difference a month makes. reading Lady and the Monk LATM right next to [b:Speed Tribes|178081|Speed Tribes Days and Night's with Japan's Next Generation|Karl Taro Greenfeld|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1172456627s/178081.jpg|172025], I kept noticing how much Iyer was a) superficial b) non-speaker c) uncool d) a fuzzy focus romanticism liar. well, all those judgments may still hold true. but I've liberalized.
maybe we do need these gossamer-spinners, these illusionists and crafters. in a world of so much harshness, pollution, poison, factory wasteland, somebody creates a myth about japan, and then starts to believe it?
and Iyer gets points because he saw the edge of religious interest that presaged Japan; whereas Crichton and Clancy in 1991 had entirely different takes on the country?
i guess I will write more later, but suffice to say, I accept a 4/5 rating. Iyer is a myth-weaver, and these judments may still hold true... but that is what it is.