Novelist and travel writer Iyer (The Global Soul, 2000, etc.) visits and attempts to comprehend some of the most remote, romantic, impoverished, and/or legendary places on the globe.
The author’s own biography is about as international as it can be: born in London to Indian parents, he now lives in Japan and regularly visits his mother in California. He focuses here on contrast, irony, and mystery, arranging 17 pieces in three loose thematic groups—although they probably could have been grouped randomly to the same effect. His venues shift from mountaintops in California, Tibet, and Haiti to the impoverished streets of the Philippines and Cambodia, to Oman and Easter Island, where he greeted the millennium with his mother and tried to find a computer that could send his e-mail. Iyer is a master of the ironic detail, and in these pieces he is able to notice the very objects whose juxtaposition will nail shut the lid of his beautifully constructed metaphorical box. In a 1993 account of New Year’s in Ethiopia, for example, after noting the country’s dangers, he concludes with a quotation from a guidebook about the “champagne atmosphere” of Addis Ababa. The author excels as well at what might be called “snapshot exposition”: the ability to capture in a few swift images the entire milieu in which he finds himself. There are a few portraits of people (the Dalai Lama, Leonard Cohen), several pieces that seem to be primarily book reviews (including a sensitive and imaginative analysis of Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans), and some fairly traditional there-I-went-and-this-is-what-I-saw-and-this-is-how-it-made-me-feel narratives. Occasionally, the author fails to avoid the travel writer’s arrogance, as when he tells how other tourists don’t appreciate what he does. Such lapses are rare; slightly more frequent is a tone of sadness akin to despair.
Goes where most of us will not go and returns with the dire details.