Review: The Lady and the Monk

Initially, I was really excited to read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk.

For those in the know, Iyer is one of the world’s leading travel writers today (travel writer, not blogger) whose observations have made him quite famous. I was especially attracted to this book because it features Kyoto, my soul city in Japan. I decided to read it after I visited because I didn’t want to spoil my first impressions with someone else’s viewpoint and wasn’t I glad I did!

In essence, The Lady and the Monk recounts Iyer’s decision to spend a year in Kyoto living a Thoreau –inspired, monkish existence only to be distracted by a beguiling lady, Sachiko. In this way, his narrative follows the template of many of the Japanese lady and monk poems and stories he reads (life imitating art, perhaps?).

The book primarily focuses on the problems of preconceptions: those Iyer has about Japan/Japanese and those Sachiko has about the West/Westerners. Through their progressive interactions, we see both characters shed their initial romanticized notions and naiveté and slowly accept some ugly truths.

Iyer comes to Japan, thinking he already knows it, based on his reading. He seems obsessed with the feminine side of Japan and actively seeks it, especially in his relationship with Sachiko.

 “…but the private Japan, and the emotional Japan — the lunar Japan, in a sense, that I had found in the poems of women and monks — was increasingly hard to glimpse. If this imaginative Japan existed only in my mind, I wanted to know that soon, and so be free of the illusion forever; yet if there were truly moments in Japan that took me back to a home as distantly recalled as the house in which I was born, I wanted to know that too.”

In the beginning, he tends to over-idealize the Japanese based on his own superficial, fly-on-the-wall observations.

“I never saw any of the children shout, or squawk, or throw a tantrum, and I never saw any of the mothers lose her smiling equanimity: both parties formed a tableau of contentment. In New York, the near-absence of children had struck me as a denaturing almost, and in California, the sense of endless possibility that was the state’s greatest hope seemed all but a curse in the hands of its young. But here, wherever I looked, I found images of madonna-and-child, in a world that seemed so settled that it almost cast no shadow.”

He also captures the seasons and changing landscape of Kyoto beautifully.

“…I felt the brightness of the Japanese autumn was like nothing I had ever seen before: such hope and stillness in the air. Tingling mornings in shiny coffee shops, dazzled afternoons among the white-robed priests: singing Handel days of rapture and precision.”

He even becomes quasi-Japanese when he travels abroad to Taiwan after a couple of months in Kyoto.

“So sheltered had my life become in Kyoto — so sanitized of danger or alarm — that I had all but forgotten that another world existed; and now it was a shock to enter a stage where tempers were lost, things went wrong, the surface snapped.”

Unlike Iyer, Sachiko idealizes the West. She loves Stand by Me, Aha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bryan Adams and often compares Iyer’s freewheeling life to her rigid role of Japanese wife and mother.

“You are bird, you go everywhere in world, very easy. I all life living only Kyoto. So I dream I go together you. I have many, many dream in my heart. But I not have a strong heart. You very different.”

She, too, learns the hard way and changes her mind a bit about Western men after a particularly awkward moment with a foreigner who mistook her friendship as sexual.

As time passes, through his relationships with Sachiko, other Japanese people, and gaijin (foreigners) in Japan, Iyer also begins to see the darker underbelly of Japan and becomes more discerning.

“This was the social contract in Japan: forfeit your individuality and you would receive a life of perfect stability and comfort; give yourself over to Japan and it would never let you down. It was like a kind of emotional welfare system: give up your freedom and you would receive a life so convenient that you’d hardly notice the freedom you’d relinquished.”

“Mother Japan prepared its children only, and ideally, for Japan.”

However, after a year passes, he leaves Japan with his romanticized vision of the country nearly intact.

“It was only later, after I had left Japan, that I realized that everything had been there that night: the lanterned dark, the moon above the mountains, the dreamlike maiden in kimono. There was the Heian vision I had sought since childhood. And yet, by now, it was so much a part of my life that I had not even seen it till it was gone.”

Although parts of the book can appear heavily romanticized and dwell too much on Zen Buddhism and Japanese poetry, The Lady and the Monk presents a generally balanced picture of Japan and Japanese culture, both the traditional and modern aspects.

Verdict: I highly recommend it.

Have you ever read The Lady and the Monk? What did you think about it?