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The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto Paperback – October 27, 1992
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From Publishers Weekly
Iyer's travelogue about visiting Japan and living in a monastery is subverted by his encounter with a vivacious woman.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"[Iyer] is a sharp-eyed and thoughtful observer, and he is successful in evoking the life of Kyoto's malls, temples, and back streets, moonlit nights on the water, and the vulgarity of the Westernized nightclub and amusement quarter." -- New Yorker
"Pico Iyers remarkable talent is enough justification for going anywhere in the world he fancies." -- Washington Post Book World
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The real meat of the book is his encounters with a young married woman with two small kids. It is certainly a clash or mash of cultures and respective fascination and infatuation. You will in no uncertain terms get Iyer's perspectives and analyses.
Yes, as one reviewer has pointed out, it is more memoir than what is called "Travel Literature"-though the boundaries between the two have always seemed blurry to me at best.
This book will be enjoyed most by lovers of poetry, lyrical poetry - such as that of Yeats and Shelley, than by readers of the "hard-boiled" school of travel writing epitomized in V.S. Naipaul's works. If you believe that poetry is the deepest sort of writing, that one can get to "know" a society or people better through a Romantic relationship with a member of that society than by doing a Sociological study of it, if your dream life is as important to you as waking life, in short, if you have a poetic nature: This is the book for you!
"Everyone falls in love with what he cannot begin to understand."--Or, as Pico finds out, thinks he cannot, but through patience and love finds that he can...begin.
PS-Pico and Sachiko are still together, according to wikipedia at any event.
The title comes from a Buddhist story about a beautiful woman who tempted a monk, much as Buddha was tempted by an evil god as he sat under the Bodhi tree searching for enlightenment.
Pico is an essayist for Time magazine and he is far more interested in the somewhat schizophrenic nature of the Japanese people than he is in Buddhism. His main subject is a housewife named Sachiko who is married to a Japanese "salary man," who works from six in the morning until eleven at night. His family life is an afterthought. Sachiko loves everything foreign from the Beatles to Mickey Mouse. She calls Pico a "bird" because he is free to wander all over the globe while she is a slave to her husband and two young children.
According to Iyer, Japan is close to a utopian society and Kyoto is the cleanest city he's ever seen. Sachiko is a fascinating character. When she introduces Pico to her children she apologizes for their misbehavior although they are much more well-behaved than western children Pico has known.
Pico and Sachiko's relationship is perplexing at first. She hints that she might want something more than a platonic relationship. He's wise enough to know that it's the dream of a romance, the romance she's seen in the movies, that she's after.
There are some wonderful moments in THE LADY AND THE MONK: Sachiko's mangled English with the occasional Japanese word thrown in and the lack of articles; Iyer's description of cherry blossom time; the albino monk Pico meets when he stays at the temple; the Hanchu Tigers last game of the year when Randy Bass, their American homerun hitter, bows to the fans fifteen times. The fans are just as enthusiastic as they would be if this were a World Series team and not a team thirty-some games out of first.
The main emphasis of the book, though, is Sachiko's story arc; we see her beginning to grow away from her salaryman husband, we see her trying to make her dreams become a reality, despite the censure of her mother and friends. We get the impression that the more Japanese women are exposed to the West the more Sachikos there will be.
Pico Iyer's "The Lady and the Monk" is a very different type of travel book. First and foremost, Iyer goes to Kyoto for a year and never really leaves the city. His book is more of a sedentary tale that revolves around his romantic relationship with a 30 year old, married mother of two.
The emotional center of this book is about a Japanese woman's attempt to break out of the strict confines of a society that keeps her from realizing her dreams. This tale of rebellion and rebirth is not told by the woman but by her Anglo/Indian/American lover. His analysis and insights are interesting but they are by there very nature second hand. And yet the one area where Iyer is an expert, his own feelings, he is a bit coy. This is a very unusual traval narrative. It is interesting but not a classic.