Pico Iyer, often described inaccurately as a travel writer, uses his travels as a launch point for constructing his wonderful essays. This is an important point to keep in mind if we are to understand the sheer range of his oeuvre. His latest work, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, uses his experiences in Iran, Ireland, Kashmir, Israel and Japan for thinking through the interplay of desire and fear in different conceptions of paradise. This interview ranged through many topics, including his working methods, cover designs, his political neutrality, Milton’s concept of paradise versus Blake’s, the structure of the book, trends in travel writing, and the ever-present possibility of genuine spiritual transcendence. Excerpts:
Your latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, covers an astonishing number of places. But the sojourns are united by a contemplation of stillness, spiritual thirst, and transience. Did this volume come out of the COVID years?
I think it did come out of COVID, yes. It came out of the fact of stillness. I was in my mother’s house; she was 88 when the pandemic began, and she died last year. I was living very close to her in her final months. And yes, I think COVID prompted all of us to think what’s really important in our lives. What do we care about? How do we live? I think all those questions really animated this, and I’m guessing in 2019 I wouldn’t have written this book. As you know, the book actually pulls us through death in the last three chapters to arrive at some notion of paradise on the far side of death.
‘A book has its own logic’
I find it interesting that you say you probably wouldn’t have written this book in 2019. While you’re working on a travel book, do you find yourself thinking that you should really be writing some other book?
Every book is a muted version of the book it should have been and the book that I visualised, but I only realise in the process of writing what it should be because the book has its own logic that’s wiser than mine. And so I make an outline, and then the book grows surreptitiously as it develops, suggesting its own path, which is much richer and more interesting than the one in my outline.
In the book you often refer to taking notes. Writers seem to differ about the usefulness of keeping notes. Henry James was a compulsive note-taker. Ivy Compton-Burnett thought very little of them. In your case, notes seem to be fundamental to the process. You mention that you lost all your notes in a fire when you were just starting out.
Yes! All the notes I had for my next three books were burnt in a forest fire. I called my editor and he in fact said, of course, it’s a shock and a shame, but you might be a deeper writer if you’re not using notes. Whenever I’m travelling, I collect a lot of notes because it’s too expensive and difficult to come back to a place.
But at some level, I’m following something deeper than my notes, which has to do with memory and emotion and imagination. So I collect a lot of them, but often I won’t use them and it’s not a loss. For example, the Iran piece in the book, I did collect 50 pages of very, very detailed notes. And I would say I omitted nearly all the notes in the chapter that you read. As you read, it’s not really a description of a trip around Iran so much as an inquiry into this haunted notion of what paradise means in this conflicted place.
Regarding details and descriptions, travel writing is sometimes accused of being untruthful. Travel writing has this history of authors embellishing the situation at hand. There is a creative aspect to the writing. Do you see travel literature as belonging to creative non-fiction rather than just non-fiction?
Well, I would say that if you and I walked down a street in Pune and came back and wrote up our accounts, each of us would have a radically different account, but both would be true to our experience. So, I don’t worry too much about categories like fiction or non-fiction. I try very hard to make it precise and accurate, but of course, it’s only an accurate depiction of my subjective response to North Korea or Belfast. Memory is itself a great fiction, really.
‘Something that does not change’
One of the things that struck me was that you rarely mentioned dates. And I was wondering why.
You are absolutely right. The first draft was littered with dates. I actually had a date at the bottom of each chapter. For example, when I was travelling in Iran, it was a very important moment in history. And I really wanted to say, this is what was happening, the Iranian President was speaking to the American President for the first time in 38 years. Then my editor, my wise editor, said, well, this is not a topical book, and it’s not a book about reportage, it’s a book about inquiry and questioning. And so it’s important to take all the dates out. I systematically went through it, disguising when any of this took place because, for example, when I described Varanasi, which I’ve been to a couple of times, or Jerusalem, which I’ve visited three or four times, I’m trying to catch something that doesn’t change.
And that’s always my interest. And that’s another reason why I don’t think travel writing is such an interesting way of describing what kind of books I like reading.
You’ve worked in other genres, too, obviously. For example, The Lady and the Monk, which is biographical, right? About meeting your wife?
Absolutely. There, because I was very young, I made an innocent mistake, I changed the names in the book so people didn’t know if it was fiction or non-fiction, but you’re right, it’s absolutely non-fiction. And I misled the reader by not giving the true names.
Paradise, a ‘terrifying’ idea
This leads me to the book’s subtitle, “In search of paradise”. How did you decide which paradises to visit? For example, why not the New York Stock Exchange? Or, why Belfast?
I hadn’t considered the New York Stock Exchange, but there were lots of other places I had. Cuba, for example, is a place where I’ve spent 35 years and I know it more intimately than any of the places in this book except Japan. I was in Antarctica, and while I was writing the book, I was in Zanzibar, and I’d just been in Tahiti and the Seychelles and lots of seeming paradise places. But I thought these places of conflict—nearly every place in the book is a war zone of some kind—would make for a more interesting way of cross-questioning paradise.
One of the things that I loved about the book was that it invokes an older, more honest, notion of paradise. We have kind of secularised the word “paradise” to a point where it is toothless. Whereas you suggest that it is not such an innocent idea. It is actually a terrifying idea.
Exactly. Which is why in fact the last three chapters all involve death. And I think anyone who’s been to Varanasi or Jerusalem know they’re not comforting places. But they’re deeply charged, spiritual, charismatic places. So the American edition of this book has a graveyard in the dead of night on the cover. And the British edition has a very jaunty pink cover. And when Penguin India and I were talking about the Indian cover, we addressed this. I said I want it to be the dark book. I don’t want it to be the toothless version that you’ve perfectly mentioned. I want it to be shadowed and surprising in that sense. People’s notion of paradise doesn’t instantly involve darkness and terror, but for a durable paradise, it has to.
I think there’s one point where the Christian version and the Hindu version of things do differ significantly in the emotions they invoke. Your book quotes Milton at several points, namely, Paradise Lost.
Yes. Very much.
Blake’s concept of divine order
However, I thought that the paradises humans have constructed in this world, the places you describe, are closer to Blake’s concept of the divine order. A scheme in which God and the Devil are working together, rather than in opposition. Their relationship is actually not one of conflict but one of contrast. I thought this book was reflecting William Blake’s vision rather than Milton’s.
Oh, that’s fantastic. I love that. I grew up singing every one of Blake’s hymns, as many people in India did, at least in my mother’s generation. Blake’s hymn about building Jerusalem amidst these greens, the satanic mills and in England. In the middle of this blighted place, this is where we build a new Jerusalem. So yes, because Milton’s story basically is about the expulsion from paradise, to find paradise far within, as the angel says to Michael. And then another presence which you’ll notice in the book is Melville, who felt very keenly that in the search for God he was encountering the Devil a lot. But these two are very strong, whether in conflict or in complement. You can’t have a notion of God without a shadow side.
Varanasi is an interesting example because it’s a spooky, haunted place, and there’s a lot going on, often in the service of religion. But for a typical person... it can be very frightening, partly because it’s in the realm of what we can’t understand and can’t begin to explain. I wouldn’t say that Varanasi, for example, is a sunlit place, but it’s a joyful place and it’s a powerful place.
‘I am a foreigner everywhere’
I was especially intrigued by the Varanasi chapter. I got this sense you were observing it as an outsider, even though you are of Indian origin. Is that a typical perspective for you?
Well you’re absolutely right. I’m a foreigner everywhere. So I never have the wisdom and the intimacy of a local. But I might notice things the local wouldn’t notice.
My wife, as you know, is Japanese. And whenever I take her to Oxford, where I was born and grew up, or to California, where I’ve lived for a long time, she invariably opens my eyes to many things I’ve never noticed in 50 years in my hometowns because I was slipping past them. I think the way I saw my Varanasi chapter was that it begins with externals and it becomes more and more internal in the course of the chapter. And one of the important structural devices of the book is that it begins in bright summer sunshine in Iran and ends in fog in Varanasi. This is my way of saying I’m moving away from certainties and clarities towards what I can’t hope to explain.
Since we’re on perspectives, let’s talk about travel writing as a genre. Evelyn Waugh in his book about his African travels, “Remote People”, says somewhere that it is very surprising to discover the importance which politics assumes the moment one begins to travel. And his book was all about the African situation in the 1930s. But your books strike me as fundamentally non-political. Especially this book.
Well, and then of course they’re un-political in the same way that they’re un-topical. And that’s partly because of my sense that if we follow the world through the media, we hear almost entirely about politics at the expense of humanity. For example, when we hear North Korea mentioned, we only think of one leader, not 30 million North Koreans trying to survive.
And it’s the same with Iran. We hear so much about that murky leadership and so little about Iranian people, very sophisticated people. The world is more powerfully divided locally and globally than at any time in memory. And we’re all craving something that unites us. So even, you know, you mentioned rightly how much religion there is in the book, but I deliberately show a Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, finding his realisation with the Buddha’s teachings. And a Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama, delivering lectures on the Gospels. And a Zen monk in the Varanasi Chapel deriving his message from thinking of the crucifixion. In other words, people looking outside their own terrain to the other for wisdom, which I think is what we most need. We’re dying of ideology now and we’re dying of people saying, my side is right and your side is wrong.
Out of the colonial corset
In contemporary travel writing, there seems to be a movement away from explicit political statements that you find in the 20th century. More humility, perhaps, and the point of travel now seems more to do with self-transformation.
I hope there’s more humility. I think when I grew up, most travel writing was written by men from the colonising countries about colonised places. And so when I came of age, I thought, well, I have the one advantage, I’m not from a colonising country, and I can bring a slightly different eye to these places that haven’t been seen or heard so often before. Now it’s very common, and I’m very excited, so many young Indian writers are writing about every part of the world, giving us a perspective we’ve never had before. And no doubt African writers and West Indian writers, too, but I think that travel writing is finally being liberated from its colonial corset, which is a good thing. And I think travellers now, especially young travellers, have a much keener sense of responsibility, and they carry with them questions about privilege and cultural appropriation and others, those are good questions to ask.
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I think you were a very big part of that transformation. My last question is more personal. In several places in the book, you come to the brink of losing yourself to the unknown. The Japan chapter, for example. There are moments where you truly are on the brink of this, but you somehow manage to pull back, or you consciously pull back, you don’t let yourself, perhaps, go the whole way.
I certainly think that the question is usually more interesting than the answer. As Merton would’ve said, it’s a really deep and soulful observation you made. And I would say that my next book, which I have already sent to my editor, begins with absolute ecstasy, transcendence and dissolution. I’ve often been shy about expressing it on the page though, even when I feel it in life. For this book, I deliberately wanted to stop on that brink to bring the reader along with me. I wanted to take the reader across these stages to the fog of Varanasi where maybe she realises this is the only paradise we’re going to find, and I didn’t want to take flight and leave her behind or make it a personal journey because it’s more, kind of, allegorical. I’m like a Pilgrim’s Progress character, travelling the way anybody can.
But the next book, which is very much rooted in my experience, very particular experience, there it’s all take-off, I would say. And then the attempt is to land safely at the end of the flight.
Anil Menon is the author, most recently, of the short story collection The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun.
- The writer Anil Menon and the travel writer Pico Iyer discuss Pico Iyer’s latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise.
- Pico Iyer explains how he uses conflicts and war zones to interrogate the idea of paradise and says the book came out of the COVID years.
- An important point that Pico Iyer makes is that travel writing has emerged from the “colonial corset” as a whole new generation of travel writers have come out of formerly colonised countries.