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Pico Iyer: finding heaven in the vast unknown

Iyer’s idea of paradise, even in sites of conflict, leaves us with the sense that its very ephemerality makes it precious

Iyer's last essay is set in the ancient city of Varanasi
Iyer's last essay is set in the ancient city of Varanasi (iStockphoto)

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"For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man, there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life,” wrote American writer Herman Melville in his 1851 novel, Moby Dick or The White Whale, that expansive, prophetic tome so crammed with metaphor and meaning that it is almost impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about what the book is actually about. But it is with curiosity, not terror, that Pico Iyer plunges into the endless unknown in his latest collection of essays, The Half Known Life, whose title is derived from Melville’s novel. Like Ishmael, Moby Dick’s narrator, Iyer is on a quest. And his white whale appears to be the idea of paradise—contradictory, complex, often shadowy versions of it.

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In an earlier interview with Lounge, Iyer spoke about the raison d’etre of the book, much of it written as he spent time with his ailing mother in California (the book is dedicated to her). “Sitting for months on end in my mother’s house—as she drew closer to the end—moved me to think about what my 48 years of constant travel really amounted to,” he said. In typical Iyer style, each of the 10 essays segues effortlessly between travelogue, biography, observations about multiculturalism and complex notions of spirituality, drawing on history, classical literature, pop culture, myth, the scriptures and oral history to breathe life into the landscapes he visits. While each essay is largely self-contained, reading them chronologically gives you the heady feeling of being on a spiritual quest, the onion-like unravelling of the mystique around various promised lands, a stab at reaching some universal truth.

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The quest begins in Iran, fittingly enough, because it is after all the country from which the word paradise, and the idea of it being a verdant garden, originated. Though he revels in the beauty he finds here, of poetry, architecture and landscape, he also discovers its dark side: a “surveillance culture in which the government was constantly trying to find what its people were thinking and its people were permanently trying to divine what their government was up to”. From Iran, he meanders over to Belfast in Northern Ireland after a quick pit stop in North Korea—that self-defined worker’s paradise. While Belfast, the hotbed of the Troubles (a 30-year-long ethno-nationalist conflict that ended in 1998), may appear to be an unlikely version of paradise, Iyer discovers in it the healing magic of Avalon, thanks to Belfast-born singer and songwriter Van Morrison, whose songs, set in this “city known for brutality”, manage to transcend its brokenness. Another unlikely paradise that finds its way into the book is the town of Broome in Australia. But Iyer, who rubs shoulders with the Aboriginal people for whom “the promised land was nowhere but the land around them”, somehow manages to find a sort of holiness in this ancient land. And then there are the versions of paradise where the sacred turns profane when confronted with the perniciousness of hatred spawned by conflicting religious and national identities. As he soaks in the seductive beauty of Kashmir, “the paradise that shone inside my mother’s heart”, for instance, he cannot help but remember the state’s many missing and dead. In Israel, a mythic land hallowed by all the Abrahamic faiths, he finds that “everyday morality and religion part ways, on grounds of irreconcilable differences”, while in Sri Lanka he is deeply unsettled by the recklessness and violence that lurk very close to the surface of a land that for centuries was seen as a paradise on earth.

As always, Iyer traverses these diverse worlds like those intrepid adventurers of yore, never as a tourist, finding shared humanity and cultural commonalities between every place he visits: The Beatles and Yves Rocher coexist with headscarves, the polymath Omar Khayyam and the poet Ferdowsi in Iran; a young boatman in Kashmir attempts talking in (not very good) French with Iyer’s friend, Brigitte; Belfast’s Kashmir Road and Jerusalem Street are often sprinkled with broken glass. If occasionally Iyer resorts to unnecessary exoticism—spotting “fair-skinned girls with the green eyes of Afghanistan” in Kashmir, for instance—he can be forgiven. The stunning word pictures he draws more than make up for it, whether he is bringing alive the “planet-shaped halls” and “Legoland skyscrapers” of North Korea or the Old-Testament-like endless landscape of Australia, filled with mangroves, prehistoric crocodiles and the maximum number of venomous snakes in the world.

Admittedly, these gorgeous, deeply profound essays, filled with big themes and lofty ideas, are likely to bring up age-old questions whose answers continue to be elusive: Does conflict arise from an ignorance of history or too much awareness of it? Is civil war an inevitable by-product of nation-states which were former colonies, soldered together by outsiders who understood nothing of the tribalism that existed and continues to define these lands? Are these unceasing atrocities a function of ancient hatreds or simply manipulative rhetoric?

But the allure of this collection lies more in the tender, deeply intimate stories of love, loss, faith and family related by locals and fellow travellers; reminiscences dredged from Iyer’s own past; the little nuggets of information

The Half Know Life--In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer
The Half Know Life--In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer (Penguin Random House India, 240 pages, 599)

that effortlessly slide in, whether it is about Belfast being the birthplace of the Titanic or Jewish menorahs being emblazoned on to Christian catacombs in Rome and Umayyad coins in Damascus; and the literary, mythical and historical references that enrich the text without ever overwhelming it. 

While the idea of paradise never stops being a friable, fleeting concept, the sense that the book leaves you with is that it is this very ephemerality that makes it so precious. In the final essay, set in the ancient city of Varanasi, whose waters often teem with half-burnt human bodies (and the occasional dead cow), Iyer finds himself pondering ideas of cyclicity, rebirth and humanness. Waking up, on his last day there, to a city so swathed in mist that it has an otherworldly aura, he cannot help but think: “It was easy, in fact, to imagine that we were all caught up now in this half known realm, and a candlelit back alleyway would be the only true home—the deepest paradise—we could ever hope to find.”

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