Kashmir and Broome are the parts when The Half Known Life is at its best. It suffers when the people Iyer meets do not really come alive.
The title of Pico Iyer’s new book is a nod to a line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. “…It’s everything half known, from love to faith to wonder and terror, that determines the course of our lives,” Iyer writes. “Melville’s sorrow lay not just in his restless inquiries, but in his hope for answers in a world that seems always to simmer in a state of answerlessness.”
In this collection of recollected, interlinked travelogues — Iyer does not tell us exactly when he visited which place, and it matters little — the author, embracing this answerlessness, the dichotomy and paradox of the world we inhabit, explores whether a “paradise”, an ideal, an idyll, can ever exist in our troubled times. “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 very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences,” Iyer writes early on in the book.
His quest takes him from Iran to Jerusalem to Kashmir to northern Ireland to Sri Lanka to north Korea to Ladakh to remote Broome in western Australia, each destination embodying, in its own particular manner, the notion of that idyll. But each place is fraught with conflict, torn asunder under the weight of its own contradictions. “…How to keep faith with even the hope of Paradise when nearly all the paradises I had seen were, sometimes for that very reason, war zones?” he asks.
Iyer is terrific in painting a place with quick, bold brushstrokes. His scenes are rich in detail — sensory, auditory, visual, and olfactory. Here he is on Kashmir: “All along the dusty alleyways of Old Srinagar, white bearded elders were hobbling along on canes towards the house of prayer while fair-skinned girls with the green eyes of Afghanistan smiled and sparkled under shawls of orange and yellow and blue.”
The Kashmir section is one of the strongest in the book. As is the account of a visit to Broome, “a speck on the map fourteen hundred miles from Perth, itself self-described as the ‘loneliest regional capital in the world’”. Iyer conveys the elemental, visceral, insular, unique nature of this tiny town with his characteristic vividness and urgency.
These are the parts when The Half Known Life is at its best. It suffers when the people Iyer meets on his travels do not really come alive as characters. Neither does it help that he quotes tour guides and taxi drivers at length. On occasion, an earnestness and humourlessness weighs down the prose; a sense of flailing to grasp at abstractions robs the sentences of clarity and sharpness.
To really appreciate The Half Known Life, one must be aware of a recent strain in Iyer’s work, a dualism that has informed his latest writing. For all his extensive, esoteric travels over so many decades, Iyer seems now drawn to the idea of stillness. He is intrigued and fascinated by the charm of not stepping out, of living a pensive, contemplative, reflective existence within the four walls of one’s home that can induce epiphanies greater than any travel.
In fact, he published in 2014 The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, a slim collection of interrelated essays, the title of which is self-explanatory. In it, he wrote: “In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” It recalls the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal's line: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
In The Art of Stillness, Iyer evoked the examples of, among others, the American poet, Emily Dickinson, and the singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, a hero of his. Towards the end of The Half Known Life, Iyer turns again to Dickinson. He writes about Dickinson “having spent twenty-six years without leaving her house, entertaining Death and Premonition and Eternity and Light in her small room”.
This is not a dwindling, Iyer suggests. Rather, it is a sort of expansion. “Whenever I lost myself in Dickinson’s poems of passion and illumination — even of terror — I never came away feeling hers was a partial or unsatisfied life. In many ways it seemed richer, fuller than those of her contemporaries who lived in the everyday world.”
This, then, seems to be the current credo of one of the most celebrated travel writers — well, writers, why qualify it? — in the Anglophone world. And it is appropriate because it speaks to our times.
The Half Known Life
By Pico Iyer
Penguin Hamish Hamilton
pp. 240, Rs.599