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Pico Iyer's book review

Feb 13, 2003 08:54 AM
by Reginald Atkinson


On page 11 of the 2/9/03 Sunday NY Times Book Review is a review of a book called "Abandon" written by Pico Iyer. Mr. Iyer is the son of the noted theosophists from Santa Barbara, Raghavan and Nandini Iyer, and has occasionally been a contributing writer to Time Magazine.

The book is described by the Times as "a romance" The first few paragraphs of the review by Pankaj Mishra (author of a novel called "The Romantics") are:

"In Pico Iyer's new novel, "Abandon," John Macmillan, an English graduate student of Islamic mystical poetry, is determined to "see the world in a Sufi light." It is why he has escaped from England: "Anything," Macmillan feels, "can be forgiven there except the longing to be better." He tells an English friend over dinner that he wants desperately to show "that what we have inside us are not just repressed demons and all that, but something radiant. Exalted." The difficulty of his task is made clear when his dinner companion appears "suddenly fascinated" by the lettuce on her plate. "Wherever," she asks, "did you get this dressing?"

It isn't just the English with their antispiritual irony who stand in Macmillan's way. Even in Santa Barbara, that sleekest of California idylls, said to be the original home of the hot tub, he finds himself struggling to make sense of the more obscure works of the prolific Sufi poet Rumi while fighting off his attraction to an elusive young woman named Camilla. He lets himself be further distracted by a futile search for a rare manuscript in the centers of the old Islamic world: Syria, Iran, Spain, India.

In much contemporary European and American fiction, the Westerner looking for consolation in the religions of the East usually invites a sententious kind of irony: wisdom can't be had, or so the message goes, for the price of an airline ticket to India or a weekend in the Catskills. But Iyer treats Macmillan's spiritual confusion and hunger with sympathy, even tenderness This may partly reflect his own weariness with an aggressively secular Western modernity whose encounter with the traditional societies of Asia he first described in his 1988 travel book, "Video Night in Kathmandu."

Iyer, who was born to Indian parents, educated in England and now lives in California and Japan....


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