“Thomas Merton on a frequent flier pass” is how Indian writer Pradeep Sebastian once described renowned travel writer Pico Iyer, and it remains my favorite, most perfect and pithy quote about him, ever. Part monk, part world reveler, the British-born American of Indian parents has written a dozen books and hundreds of journalistic articles that espouse his exquisite personal blend of philosophy and engagement, inner quiet and worldly life.
With his latest book, “Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells,” Iyer finds himself once again in Japan, which for decades has been his chosen second home. His Japanese wife, Hiroko, a more pragmatic and uncomplicated soul than her spouse, has just lost her nonagenarian father, a man who survived the bombing of his native Hiroshima because he was away, fighting in World War II.
The death feels quick and unsettling. Iyer arrives four days later, to the two-room apartment he’s shared with his wife for years in the Deer’s Slope community near Nara, Japan. He allows the coming autumnal season to reveal the beautiful impermanence of life.
What follows is a vivid meditation on the year after his father-in-law’s death: a conscious transition from grief glimpsed through the prism of his pedestrian daily routines and tested by the changing Japanese seasons.
After all, Japan — with its thousands of temples and shrines — is a country closely embroidered to time, shifting light, nature and the plethora of religious traditions, ancient customs and numerous superstitions that help people navigate the temporal movements and change. (It’s very different than the sports seasons, holiday sales and daily graphing of the Dow Jones Industrial Average that mark the passage of time in the U.S.).
Iyer clearly revels in these cohabitations. As he says of his chosen country: “We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty… Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”
For much of the year, the travel writer is on the road, circling the globe to various hot spots; it’s a job that keeps Iyer’s feet and mind squarely grounded in the “real” world. He also spends time with his elderly mother, who lives alone in the California hills, and makes annual visits to a Northern California monastery, “but I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells,” he says. “Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.”
It’s Iyer’s keen ear for detail and human nature that helps him populate his trademark cantabile prose with his (seemingly boring) daily routines and the (never boring) people who populate them: his pragmatic wife; her elderly mother, who forgets her husband is dead; two mature Japanese stepchildren; a Jungian psychologist brother-in-law who is estranged from his family but who lives nearby; the Dalai Lama, a longtime friend with whom he sometimes travels; and the endless neighbors and fellow street-populaters who coexist alongside him under the beautifully lighted, ever-changing Japanese skies. Their lives and daily routines show us how alike, yet different, we all are.
However, it’s the evenings Iyer spends at the local health club, smashing paddles with his Deer’s Slope Ping-Pong Club, that bring the upturned smiles: the Speedo-clad elderly men, the gossipy women, the people with names Iyer’s concocted in his head such as “Emperor,” “Charlie Brown” and “Mr. Joy.” These retirees figuratively stand in for Iyer and his wife as they grow older, feeling time rushing forward.
It’s within these games that we see best how aging — especially in a country where the population skews so strongly in the plus-65 category that “more diapers are sold to the elderly (in Japan) than to babies,” Iyer notes — is a rhythmic daily battle of impermanence. Each player offers a unique navigation through these comes-to-all autumn years; and how clever of Iyer to make their commotions a metaphor for how the world paddles forward.
Iyer seems to suggest that Japanese culture helps the people navigate these inevitable seasons better than most. At a local park, Iyer hears schoolkids chanting a well-known Japanese song, a lesson that gives its children a heads-up on the blurred lines between life and death, beauty and decay, the subject he ruminates on throughout this genuine and loving tale: “Bright though they are in color, blossoms fall. Which of us escapes the world of change? We cross the farthest limits of our destiny, and let foolish dreams and illusions all be gone.”
Knopf: 256 pp., $25.95