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Pico Iyer's 'The Half Known Life' upends the conventional travel genre

Riverhead Books

A mesmerizing collection of essays that vividly recalls sojourns to mostly contentious yet fabled realms, Pico Iyer's The Half Known Life upends the conventional travel genre by offering a paradoxical investigation of paradise.

Iyer's deeply reflective explorations at once affirm and challenge the French philosopher Blaise Pascal's statement that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

After years of traversing the globe as the Dalai Lama's biographer and observing first-hand how people struggle with the search for a meaningful existence, Iyer, a noted British-American essayist of Tamil ancestry, has often wondered what kind of paradise can be found in our increasingly fractious world.

Since travel is often tied to escape/refuge as well as conquest/acquisition, the notion of paradise in today's context inevitably brings up attendant issues of loss, instability, violence and oppression. Voyaging from shadowy mosques and gardens of Iran (where the same Farsi word is used for both "garden" and "paradise") to the sterile skyline of North Korea; the deceptively peaceful lakes of Kashmir to the unyielding terrains of Ladakh and the tense sunlit lawns of Sri Lanka; the wrathful Old Testament landscape of Broome, Australia to the fog-shrouded, Bardo-like embankments of Varanasi; the clamorous streets of Jerusalem to the hushed temples of Koyasan, Japan, Iyer poetically depicts the otherworldly beauty of these places while trenchantly examining the paradox of utopia. Why do so many seeming paradises rupture in suffering and chaos? Is the serpent an inherent feature of paradise? In the process he also questions our idea of knowledge by positing that "the half known life is where so many of our possibilities lie."

While acknowledging that a flawed understanding of other cultures can create tragic consequences, Iyer believes "it's everything half known, from love to faith to wonder and terror," that actually guides the trajectory of one's life. Accordingly, there is usually a gap between our preconceived notion of happiness and a deeper, realer truth that we may intuit but tend to overlook in our pursuit of happiness. "The places we avoid [are] often closer to us than the ones we eagerly seek out," Iyer insightfully observes.

The notion of home/truth versus exile/illusion is fluid one — Iyer is less interested in binary thinking than in embracing contradictions. In his view, it's precisely our imperfect grasp of reality that both invites us to commune with other worlds and teaches us to be humble when we find ourselves untethered from the familiar. Therefore Iyer's idea of paradise, in embracing both engagement and conscious solitude, affirms yet also modifies Pascal's isolationist sentiment. In some way Iyer's worldview is closer to Olga Tokarczuk's Boschian universe of provisionary heretics in The Books of Jacob, and shares more kinship with limbo or hell than what we normally envision as the kingdom of perfect happiness.

In acknowledging suffering as an indispensable feature of paradise, Iyer emphatically renounces a pristine image of Eden, as embodied by North Korea's "massive stage set, all Legoland skyscrapers and false fronts." Seeing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a necessary fall, and the Buddha's departure from his princely estate as a conscious acceptance of human frailties, Iyer concludes that a true paradise is only attainable through displacement.

While The Half Known Land is not without its romantic seductions — Iyer's indelible prose often conjures the hypnotic, teeming vista of a David Lean epic or the evocative interior of a Mira Nair picture — his descriptions are suffused with an awareness of loss. Although we are deeply enchanted by Iyer's recounting of his mother's fairytale childhood in Kashmir's alpine hills, we also understand his wish to relinquish this illusory past:

"Could [my mother's] memories of Kashmir still be found? Should they? The very British who had raised her and educated her so beautifully had also cut the honeymooners' valley into pieces and left it in the hands of implacable [Pakistan, Indian and Chinese] rivals ...."

In another bittersweet story about Kashmir, a Westerner's dream of escape turns into a long lasting, sustainable engagement with the region after the man suffered a devastating loss. In Iyer's riveting anecdotes, a sudden intimacy with death brings one closer to glimpses of paradise. This unflinching yet organic acceptance of death seems to nullify any hubristic attempt toward absolutes. Iyer's discussion of the Dalai Lama's pragmatism in treating various religious traditions as complementary medical systems — rather than mystical truths — seems especially apt. By concentrating on relieving human suffering, His Holiness's teachings are situated in the here and now, rather than in any theoretical exaltation of eternal life.

Finally, The Half Known Life offers us a revelatory refresher on American literature. Iyer's intimations of mortality help us embrace Herman Melville's visceral terror of the unknown in Moby Dick, and his engagement of diverse worlds brings to mind both Emily Dickinson's dwelling in possibility ("The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise") and Elizabeth Bishop's ambiguous epiphany in "Questions of Travel":

"Continent, city, country, society:

the choice is never wide and never free."

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh

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Thúy Đinh