The disruptions to travel and to the daily rhythms of the traveller’s life by the pandemic have been so variously and deeply reported that when Pico Iyer’s new book The Half-Known Life: In Search of Paradise opens with a recap of his first hours in Iran, I want to ask, what about COVID-19 protocol, how did the opening up of tourism change your routine, when exactly did you go? Reading on, it of course becomes evident that these are mostly remembered travels, a sifting of a lifetime of journeys that have already marked out a sizeable place on the travel bookshelf for Iyer, that the travels are recalled here in no particular order in time, and that a more interior journey sets the chronology.
Whether the “search” for paradise was playing out actively in his mind during a journey, or whether the journey yielded insights retrospectively is not always clear — and it really does not matter. When the visit took place is also not often evident — readers will pick up different clues — for instance, he is in Kashmir seven years after a bus had crossed a “Peace Bridge” across the Line of Control.
Iyer sums up his inquiry thus: “After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict — and whether the search for it might not simply aggravate our differences.” It is apt, he decides, that the launch pad be “the culture that had given us both our word for paradise and some of our most soulful images of it”. He goes to Iran’s holiest sites, he soaks up wisdom and riddles (perhaps wisdom comes through riddles) as he speaks to guides and drivers, loses himself to Persian poets, thinks of the film A Separation, and lingers on some biographical detail from his own life.
The last appears to be crucial. The stops on the narrative’s itinerary — among them, Tehran, Pyongyang, Srinagar, Colombo, Belfast, Koyasan, Varanasi — bring forth different biographical details. His life story is familiar to his readers by now, and episodes are recapped at different points — his childhood in an English boarding school; his parents, scholars of Indian origin, in the U.S.; the fire in his home in California that turned to ash all his earthly possessions, including handwritten notes “that might have made up my next three books”, and the pivotal place in his personal journey that this catastrophe marked; his Japanese wife; his proximity to the Dalai Lama.
In this book of deep references to literary and spiritual books, and insights gleaned from journeying around the globe, meeting people and retracing his own steps sometimes many times over, one episode in Belfast stands out for a kind of personal excitement that the reader may not have expected to find. His wife Hiroko and he are venturing forth, map in hand, from C.S. Lewis Square when he passes a sign saying Cyprus Avenue. Stop, he tells her, “You’ve got to take my picture here.” This is obviously uncharacteristic behaviour from Iyer, and she asks in bewilderment, “It reminds you of the street where you grew up, in Oxford?” He is too excited to explain, and they move from spot to spot, with him posing for photographs. Eventually he tells her, “This is the landscape I have been walking through, in my head, for 30 years”, these are “everyday boyhood places out of which Van Morrison made a scripture”.
It is eventually a very personal discovery, in initially bewildering Varanasi, that makes Iyer’s journey whole, and he quotes a Zen master, “The struggle of your life is your paradise.”
The Half-Known Life: In Search of Paradise; Pico Iyer, Hamish Hamilton, ₹599.