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The Open Road (thoughts)

December 6, 2010

I know: three nonfiction reviews in a row! But I happened to have already written this post, and my brain is too fibro-fuzzy today to write about The Evil Genius like I had planned. I’m trying to get in the habit of having a few days worth of posts in reserve for moments like this, but so far that habit has yet to materialise! Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be feeling more normal. -Eva

Sometimes, serendipitous library browsing turns up a new favourite author. Those times are to be treasured, especially when the author has an extensive backlist. And after The Open Road, I suspect Pico Iyer will soon be in my sidebar! Nothing like giving away the ending at the beginning, eh? But I think anyone with the remotest interest in travel, other cultures, globalisation, or the Dalai Lama will love this book. Now let’s see why. ;)

Iyer has known the Dalai Lama since he was young, due to his father. This book draws on that thirty years of knowledge, and on Iyer’s experiences as a journalist following the Dalai Lama on some of this trips. Interwoven with this are interviews with other Tibetans (both ones in power and ‘everyday’ people of the diaspora), Iyer’s travels to both Mcleod Ganj and Chinese-occupied Tibet, sketches of the ‘modern’ history of Tibet, a general introduction to Buddhism, and descriptions of what the Chinese are doing there. Iyer’s writing style is marvelous, as one might expect of the son of an Oxford don who himself attended Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. Here’s a taste:

The Dalai Lama, by contrast, is saying, “Please.” Please help my peple in Tibet even though you may seem to lose the support of the world’s largest nation in the short term. Please rise to your highest selves in seeing that responsibility is an assertion of enlightened self-interest. Please try to see that if you think we really inhabit a global universe, then your welfare depends on that of Tibet, as much as its welfare depends on you.
No one likes to hear a plea, especially from a guest, and least of all from a man she likes and respects; the natural impulse is to look past the plea to the liking and respecting (especially if that man seems so in command of himself and his philosophy that it’s easy to imagine he can help you much more than you can help him). The very fact that the Dalai Lama tells the world he needs it moves many in the world to assume that he must, in fact, be above it.

This isn’t really a biography of the Dalai Lama; instead, it’s a look at what it’s like to simultaneously be the leader of a culture that’s being crushed and one of the best-known figures in the Western world, all in the context of the technology, culture, and politics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But Iyer does bring the Dalai Lama to life; I especially like how he looked at his public appearances ‘behind the curtain,’ so to speak. And Iyer obviously has a deep respect for the Dalai Lama, which comes through in his writing. Also, he provides an annotated reading list at the end, in case you want to learn more about the Dalai Lama or Tibet! He also doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the current situation in Tibet, which I appreciate. He looks at the most obvious problems of the Chinese occupation:

…Amdo, the province in eastern Tibet where the current Dalai Lama was born, was turned into the largest gulag in the world, set up to accommodate as many as ten million prisoners. One in every five Tibetans-more than a million in all-died of starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese, according to Tibetan estimates. one in ten found himself in jail, while all but thirteen of the more than six thousand monasteries in Tibet were laid waste and centuries-old scriptures were incinerated. Parents were forced to applaud as their children were shot.
In recent years, more details of what the International Commission of Jurists described at the time as a “genocide” have come to light, as have the stories of many of those who escaped at last from incarceration. …Yet what we tend to notice, too often, are the larger-than-life contours of the story, and not the brutal realities that we can do something to transform.

But he also looks at the more subtle ones, especially the effect of official policy encouraging Han Chinese to settle Tibet:

By the time I made my third trip to Tibet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I could not even recognize the country I had visited twice before. The Potala Palace was not visible from most parts of the capital, and broad, spotless boulevards traveled between blue-glassed shopping centers and gleaming high-rises. The small Tibetan area remaining, with its swarm of dusty lanes and little houses, was now called “Old Town,” as if it were already a historic area commemorating the curiousities of an indigenous population long gone. The signs along Beijing Lu, as the main drag is called, were for Giordano and gelato.

In order for me to love a travelogue, the author needs to both conjure up scenes so well that I feel right there with them and to intelligently put her/his experiences in context. As far as the latter goes…it’s not that the author needs to have the same opinions as me on international affairs (although, when that’s the case, it’s quite a bonus!), but s/he needs to have an internally consistent, thought-out approach that does not involve references to Thomas Friedman or Samuel Huntington (unless they’re disparaging…I’ll get on board with that). Iyer provides all of that and more, which is why I’m so interested in his backlist. I can’t wait to be able to see more of the world through his eyes! Now I just have to decide where to head to first. ;)

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Therese permalink
    December 6, 2010 4:16 pm

    Pico Iyer is one of the greats. Video Night in Katmandu is a cult classic. For another travel instant classic that has all the right elements, try Last Seen in Lhasa by Claire Scobie. I don’t want to over-hype it, but if you are into travel writing and spiritual quest, this is one of the top ten in my view. Then there is the Beyond Earth and Sky by Jamie Zeppa about her volunteer work in Bhutan. For another cult classic, try Tuva or Bust. You can even get a Tuva or Bust bumper sticker. It’s about the great physicist Richard Feynman and his friend’s ten-year quest to reach the remote country of Tuva. There are some unforgettable scenes in this book that rank with some of the funniest I have ever read.

    • December 13, 2010 3:46 am

      Thanks for the recommendations! I read Beyond Earth and Sky earlier this year. :)

  2. December 6, 2010 7:53 pm

    I have read only one book which was based in Tibet called ‘Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk which was great. I have been wanting to read this particular book for some time now. I haven’t read Pico Iyer yet, but seems like he is one writer to look forward to.

    • December 13, 2010 3:47 am

      Interesting! I read Patrick French’s Tibet, Tibet, which I really liked. I think you’d enjoy Iyer. :D

  3. December 6, 2010 8:01 pm

    Oh did I tell you I have met The Dalai Lama. I was very young and probably didn’t even understand everything he stands for, but I still remember him :)

  4. December 6, 2010 8:55 pm

    I’ve heard of The Open Road but never really knew what it was about. It sounds wonderful! I love travelogues/memoirs but haven’t read many recently. This one has the fascinating bonus of involving the Dalai Lama, so it’s getting added to my list.

  5. December 7, 2010 7:12 am

    Sounds exactly like my kind of book! Travel writing accounts for some of my all time favourites.

    • December 13, 2010 3:47 am

      I avoided travel writing for ages, but now I very much enjoy it. :)

  6. December 7, 2010 9:40 am

    Sounds fascinating Eva. I’ll have to look up something by the author for sure. Glad you’ve found a new favorite :)

    • December 13, 2010 3:48 am

      I hope I did Amy! I don’t call authors favourites until I’ve read three of their books, though. hehe

  7. December 7, 2010 11:55 am

    No reason not to write about three nonfiction books in a row, if that’s what you’re reading!

    This one sounds smart and interesting, not to mention affecting. I don’t read a lot of travelogues, I think because I associate them with the myopic “Eat Pray Love” pattern of white middle-class person having some kind of midlife crisis, going to the “exotic east” and finding themselves. Intellectually I know that’s an unfair generalization, so I appreciate your posts about the politically engaged, well-written contributions to this genre. I’ll have to give Iyer a shot!

    • Therese permalink
      December 7, 2010 6:57 pm

      yes, giving Iyer a shot is good advice. I was afraid to bring up E/P/not Love, but since it’s been done… as a fan of good travel literature, I knew before I read it that it would be bad, I just didn’t know how bad. The best travel lit is well written, of course, (unlike E/P/Not Love), and almost always captures the unfolding of a spiritual transformation–a true one, not an exotic yoga jaunt culminating in a para-spiritual business venture where the “natives” are never viewed as anything but stage set backdrops.
      I had not focused on this book by Iyer, but after this review I’m very interested.

    • December 13, 2010 3:50 am

      I avoided travelogues for ages, Emily, (only really began reading them a couple years ago I think), so I understand where you’re coming from completely. I’ll start working on a reading list of travel books unlike E/P/L! hehe

  8. December 7, 2010 1:51 pm

    This really appeals to me. Thank you. You introduce me to some of the most interesting books ever and I appreciate you.

    • December 13, 2010 3:50 am

      Thanks so much Care! You’re the sweetest. :) I appreciate you too: such a cheerful addition to the blogosphere.

  9. December 7, 2010 2:04 pm

    Interesting review, Eva! I have read short pieces by Pico Iyer, but never a full-length book of his. I also read somewhere that he lives in a small apartment somewhere in Japan, where he doesn’t have access to the internet and telephone and his home has minimalistic furniture, and he loves being at one with nature and thinking and writing, when he is not travelling. He seems to be a fascinating person.

    Hope you are feeling better now and hope you get well soon.

    • December 13, 2010 3:50 am

      Interesting! I know he has at least one book about Japan…I think I want to read that one next, since he lives in Kyoto and that’s the city I’m most interested in there. ;) Thanks for the good health wishes!

  10. December 7, 2010 6:33 pm

    You talked me into it…I had to go and order it!

    • December 13, 2010 3:51 am

      I hope you enjoy it! I really think you will, since you’re such a fan of travelogues. :)

  11. December 7, 2010 9:23 pm

    You just moved from one fantastic library system to another, didn’t you? So envious.

  12. December 13, 2010 12:14 pm

    Tibet and the Dali Lama are two subjects I would like to know more about. I haven’t traveled enough new places in my reading in 2010 and hope to correct that in 2011.

  13. December 17, 2010 2:32 am

    What you said at the beginning I think will hold true~ this looks like a book I am going to love!


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