Iyer’s latest — and his first to be published following the resumption of international travel — is “The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise.” It’s a culmination of his shifting focus on inner journeys and an expansion of his argument that paradise is rarely found elsewhere. But unlike his slim book of stillness, this is a return to the open road: a grand, full-scale travelogue that traverses Iran, Sri Lanka and Japan before arriving at its final emotional destination. Like the author himself, it has multiple identities and registers — equally memoir, travelogue, cultural history and airport philosophy. It is also one of his very best.
Pico Iyer was born in Oxford, England, into a family of Indian academics who eventually moved to Santa Barbara, Calif. A former journalist, he now lives in Kyoto with his Japanese wife, and his life across England, California and Asia has become a recurring thread in his work. There is a vintage, almost imperial quality to Iyer’s brand of wanderlust and a clear influence from the European Romantic tradition of finding and writing the self through far-flung grand tours. That kind of travel writing, however, can now feel dated and disconnected in its earnest, exclusively male self-absorption — not to mention tone deaf in a world of restricted access and rigid visa regimes. Fortunately, Iyer has remained both participant and critic of that privileged mode of travelogue-ing, and I’ve always found an electric charge of journalistic observation and acute political alertness in even his most romantic essays.
In a confessional mood, “The Half Known Life” breaks open Iyer’s journey to becoming a travel writer with the wistful tone of looking back at a younger, more assured self. The title is drawn from a line in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” about the mysteries and allure of that which we do not know. The book is haunted by Iyer’s lifelong obsession with pursuing paradise: searching for an external projection of refuge, beauty and peace through travel. The word “paradise” remains that most promising of advertising slogans for the likes of Bali, Barbados or Amalfi, and even with the indignities of modern travel, so many of us still take off in search of a temporary, Instagrammable slice of heaven. Iyer writes about both that secular market for paradise and the religious pursuit of heaven or Nirvana in distant, monastic destinations for the faithful.
The book opens with Iyer in the walled gardens of Iran’s ancient holy cities, where he’s come in search of the Islamic ideal of paradise, represented as architectural manifestations of Quranic gardens. Minders from the regime, however, are standing by at each turn, and it becomes abundantly clear that paradisiacal masterpieces from the past are policed by brutal forces from the present. As Iyer learns from conversations with Iranians, the Islamic republic is a “country where every road comes with speed bumps,” and despite his longings for Iran’s walled gardens, the lived experience, it turns out, does not afford him the paradise he seeks. In a later chapter set in Sri Lanka’s lush jungles amid ancient Buddhist statuary, the cemeteries of the genocidal civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority become stark reminders of a fallen paradise.
These early sections of the book can feel like fragmentary, rapid-fire visits to exotic destinations, punctuated with elliptical inner monologues and historical and literary asides. The writing, while always poetic, can feel unmoored and disorienting. As the book slows in its second half toward a majestic conclusion along the banks of the Ganges in the Hindu city of death, Varanasi, that structure becomes clearer in form and intention. The transition from confusion to clarity is by design. Like any great travelogue, “The Half Known Life” is a narrative cartography of personal growth and expansion. It is a work of spiritual evolution built around vivid, discernible images of real places by a master of description.
Iyer has always been one of my favorite carry-on companions on travels, even when the books are not about the place on the itinerary. As he has aged into his recent body of work about inner life and silence, deeply inspired by his travels with the Dalai Lama and reflections on digital-age restlessness and political fracture, he has become a different kind of fellow traveler. This book is dedicated to Iyer’s late mother, who died in 2022, and published in a post-pandemic world of loss and frayed societies, even though it never explicitly references the disease.
To be honest, I was looking forward to returning to a vintage, aspirational brand of wanderlust with a great roving chronicler of elsewhere. Instead, “The Half Known Life” is a masterful merging of Iyer’s past and current concerns, a book of inner journeys told through extraordinary exteriors, of hopeful optimism for a world rooted in the paradise of being home.
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.
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