A displaced English graduate student pursues ancient manuscripts of Sufi mysticism—and the obscure object of desire who embodies it—in travel writer Iyer’s finely wrought and sinuous second novel (after Cuba and the Night, 1995).
John Macmillan, a buttoned-up Englishman, breaks with the Old World and his girlfriend, Martine, to complete his dissertation on the mystical verse of Rumi amid the emotional New Age misfits of Santa Barbara. Under the tutelage of brilliant, laconic Iranian scholar Javad Safadhi, Macmillan steeps himself in the Sufi mystics—in verse that’s sensuous on the one hand, deeply sacred on the other—though he’s warned not to confuse the two: “Keep your life separate from your studies,” Safadhi advises. Macmillan hopes to unearth manuscripts that made their way to the West during the Iranian “Second Revolution,” but he encounters only obfuscation. When he meets the timid, waiflike, traumatized Camilla Jensen—a strange mixture of Nadja and Alice in Wonderland who speaks in the platitudes of her native California—Macmillan abandons his pursuit of manuscripts (plus the completion of his dissertation) in favor of oblivion with the knowing girl-woman. Iyer, despite his disclaimer of ignorance about Sufism and Iran, has delved deeply into mystical poetry, and his evident passion for it (and his knowledge of parallel strains in Buddhism and Hinduism) infuses the tale with erudite riches. A longtime visitor to California, Iyer gives a portrait of this “orphaned state” that’s vividly descriptive and utterly convincing. Overall, though, the desert-meandering narrative loses momentum as Macmillan puzzles over Camilla’s erratic behavior (she’s fond of making love in abandoned houses, then vanishing), a problem that Iyer hastily remedies by sending Macmillan off to India or England to meet shadowy characters who may enlighten him: The travel writer and novelist are still jockeying for position.
A compelling scholarly mystery gives way to a steamy modern-day Persian romance.