Helen of Troy meets Helen of Trinidad

Tropical Classical
August 22, 1997

From my perch above the sea in California, New York seems a crepuscular place, Stygian almost, smoke hissing out of its manholes, long, dark streets narrowing one's horizons, infernal tremors rumbling beneath one's feet." It is a fine opening sentence for a short essay on New York: compact, precise, fluent and vivid, characteristic of these essays at their best. But if it gives you the impression that its author is a confirmed Californian, born and raised, you are mistaken.

Pico Iyer was born in Britain 40 years ago, the son of distinguished scholarly parents who had come from India and settled in Oxford to research and teach. When they subsequently moved to sunnier academic climes in California, Pico (who was by then a friend of mine) naturally went with them. He continued to be educated, however, in Britain, and so found himself inhabiting two exceptionally different worlds, semitropical Santa Barbara and British boarding schools (in addition to the India, especially Bombay, that he would sometimes visit during holidays). "I shuttled back and forth," his brief preface tells us, "between one world that seemed to ask too much of life and another that seemed to ask too little". Later, at Oxford, he took a brilliant degree in English, and then moved effortlessly to Harvard University, where he soon fell out of academic life. Spotted by Time magazine, in 1982 he became an essayist, feature writer and book reviewer, and began travelling the world. During the past decade and more, he has lived for long periods in Japan. He thus has links with three continents and four disparate countries: the USA, Britain, India and Japan.

Cosmopolitanism is, not surprisingly, the keynote of his writings, which have appeared in many important US magazines and newspapers, and in The Times Literary Supplement. His best-known book, Video Night in Kathmandu, was an eye-witness, streetwise, up-to-the-minute report on the CocaColonization of the East: published in 1988, its title no longer seems surprising, so fast has American popular culture spread across the globe in recent years. His novel, Cuba and the Night, explores the same issues, but in America's backyard.

These essays, culled by their author from hundreds written over the past 15 or so years, are, he says, part of his "dialogue" with himself as he tries "to matchmake the classical precepts of my upbringing with the tropical palms that came with my inheritance." This is a reversal of the more usual situation, found in writers like V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, for whom the palms of St Lucia came first, followed by the classical precepts. It gives to the collection its title, taken from an essay entitled "Welcome to the age of the tropical classical". Of the above three writers, it is Walcott who inspires Iyer: "Derek Walcott's entire, noble career has been about making a peace within himself, between the books he absorbed at school, and the world he picked up under the sky and beside the sea." Walcott's poetry and plays are, of course, openly inspired by Homer. Asks Iyer: "Why choose between Homer and Earl Lovelace", the Trinidadian novelist and playwright, " - that is the burden of Walcott - when we are able to have both and, in fact, to see how Homeric patterns are played out in the world of Earl Lovelace? When we can bring Helen to life by finding her down the street in Saint Lucia, and when we can, in that discovery, give the calypso singer a new theme to incorporate?" Iyer's complex background, his voracious reading of both classical and popular literature and his wide exposure to many cultures, make him a formidable literary critic: open-minded, generous, nuanced, sophisticated, unfailingly readable and jargon-free. (No wonder he soon tired of academic literary pursuits.) The reviews printed here cover English, American and Indian writers, but not, curiously for so multicultural a writer, writers in English translation: no Latin Americans, no Europeans, no Russians, no Japanese (though all are referred to). Here is Iyer on Rushdie's collection East, West: "Beneath all the elaborate images and ornate arabesques and imaginative somersaults, one can see a novelist who is living, and acutely feeling, the mixed rat races he describes. And instead of drawing them on broad canvases that can seem as noisy and tiring and overcrowded as the streets of an Indian city, here he gives us a narrow country lane into something vulnerable and true. That is why this is the first book of Rushdie's that I have liked as much as I've admired."

And here, after extolling the virtues of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, he comes to the nub of the novel: "Every single page of A Suitable Boy is pleasant and readable and true; but I found the parts better crafted, and so more satisfying, than the whole... At times, in fact, the book feels more like a serial than an epic, and it is not immediately evident that its 1,400 pages make it four times better than it would have been at 350. Indeed, its central love story is so compelling that I found myself thinking that inside this fat novel, a much stronger thin one was struggling to get out."

Finally, here is Iyer on the joint centenary of Raymond Chandler, "an honorary Brit who smuggled two foreign substances into Hollywood - irony and morality - and so gave us an unflinchingly American voice", and T.S. Eliot, "an American who found his voice in England". "Eliot merely articulated the deepest spiritual and emotional issues of the times; Chandler put them on the sidewalk."

Iyer is interested in both the realm of the spirit and in the life of the sidewalk, indeed his trademark is the seamless way in which he conjoins high and low culture, wherever he goes. These essays contain frequent references to his attraction for Buddhism and the current Dalai Lama; one of the best is a substantial piece on "The life and times of the Potala Palace", in Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama grew up before fleeing to India in 1959, and to which Iyer was among the first visitors when the Chinese re-opened the palace in 1985. Within, he saw a tourist give a monk a picture of the Dalai Lama; and noticed the Tibetan's eyes fill with tears. It is an apt symbol for the murky ambivalences of tourism that so fascinate Iyer.

But the best piece in the book for my money is one about America that made me laugh aloud, combining as it does the author's sure-footed knowledge of contemporary American writing with his delicious (British-bred?) penchant for irony. Entitled "Perhaps the best article on blurbs I've written today" - I love that weasel "perhaps" - it is something of a comic classic, an exquisite, slightly shamefaced dissection of the puffs (as we British prefer to call blurbs) that decorate the jackets of books - even more in the USA than in Britain. All writers solicit such puffs when they are getting started, and Iyer admits he has been no exception. But now he is frequently being asked to oblige others. "Not long ago, almost simultaneously, I received tomes on Hassidic children, wine-making impresarios, and the whorehouses of Saigon (who do these people think I am?)."

Puffs come in a great range of varieties, which Iyer pinions for our better inspection and entertainment. "Some self-destruct heroically", an example being a half-page ad for a book that "Arthur C. Clarke, the Dalai Lama and Harvey Cox had all allegedly enjoyed: further down, there was a lukewarm sentence from 'Arthur C. Clark' (sic), a note from the secretary to the Dalai Lama, a not very ringing message from Harvey Cox, saying, 'I think you are on to something,' and a quote from an unnamed 'Educator in Boston,' who, in lauding the book's 'refusal of all pretentiousness,' succeeded in misspelling 'its'."

The hilarious essay concludes more seriously: "given our accelerating culture of the sound bite, the boldface name, the browser, the virtual reader, and the capsule review ('11 on a scale of 10!' 'Three thumbs up!' 'Oscar better polish his statue!') can the day be far off when every book will be read only on its cover?" Looking from California, New York, Bombay, Tokyo or, for that matter, London, the concern is clearly a legitimate one. But with writers like Pico Iyer around, I would say there is life in the old book yet.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions

Author - Pico Iyer
ISBN - 0 679 45432 2
Publisher - Knopf
Price - $25.00
Pages - 314

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