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The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer (thoughts)

November 21, 2013

The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer
You know that sinking feeling, when you’ve read and loved an author’s previous book, and begin another one she’s written, and suddenly realise it might not be as good? But you keep reading, hoping you’re wrong, and it just gets worse and worse? And when you finish you realise you should have abandoned it at the beginning, like your instincts told you to? No? Just me? Well that in a nutshell is how I felt about The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer. I loved his book about the Dalai Lama, and I was thrilled he had such an extensive back list. I decided to pick up The Lady and the Monk, because Kyoto intrigues me. I expected a thoughtful, multicultural, new-world-order kind of thing. Instead, I found a deeply disturbing account of Iyer’s time living in Kyoto, complete with creepy friendship-turned-affair he conducted with a Japanese housewife. Um, yeah.

It’s not that I think all such relationships are creepy; no, it’s the way that Iyer wrote about it that was so problematic. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book handy to share passages, so you’ll just have to trust me. First, Iyer creates this weird conceit that Japan is best summed up in the dual figures of a (male, stoic, enlightened) monk and a (feminine, helpless, man-ensnaring, devoted-to-superficial-appearances) lady, and proceeds to analyse all of his experiences through that terribly sexist lens. Which was infuriating enough, but then this Japanese woman entered the picture, and it was as if Iyer never quite realised she was a real, live person. He was so busy objectifying her, making her represent his clever little idea, that it seems as if he carried on this whole relationship just for the sake of his book/argument.

By the end of the book, I was utterly disgusted with Iyer and wishing that the girlfriend had written her own account. As it is, I’m now sad that rather than exploring the rest of his books, I’ll be avoiding him due to his objectification of women. Honestly, the older I get, the less patience I have for that kind of nonsense. It’s particularly disappointing in an author who purports to be cosmopolitan.

Suggested Companion Replacement Reads

  • The Makioka Sisters by Junchiro Tanizaki (Haven’t blogged about this, but Tanizaki does an excellent job of capturing the lives of upper class Japanese women in a time of social change as Japan approaches WWII. Loved it!)
  • A Year in Japan by Kate Williamson : a quiet, reflective, illustrated travelogue by a Canadian artist who spent a year Kyoto.
  • A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (which I haven’t blogged about, but it’s just as wonderful as all the hype would have you believe)
  • The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura : Okakura lays out some Japanese philosophy for a Western audience in this wonderfully entrancing book which touches some of the themes Iyer attempts to bring up.
  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan : let’s let a Japanese woman speak for herself, eh? ;)
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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2013 9:13 am

    I have this book on my shelf, but will take your word for it and give it a skip.

  2. November 21, 2013 9:50 am

    I think I read an essay by him once, but don’t remember it now. How disappointing for you though! That said, thanks for reinforcing my desire to read both The Pillow Book and The Makioka Sisters.

  3. November 21, 2013 10:57 am

    Yes, I have had that experience, but not so strongly as you. Just disappointment that I never find another book quite as good, as the first one I loved by a certain author. I haven’t read much literature about Japan, but when I do I’ll certainly start with the list you put at the bottom!

  4. November 22, 2013 8:29 am

    >>Honestly, the older I get, the less patience I have for that kind of nonsense.

    Oh Lord, me too. With each passing year I have less energy for it. My face was all scrunched up with ick reading this review — has it made you reluctant to return to the Iyer book you did love? (That would be sad. But sometimes it happens that way.)

  5. November 22, 2013 11:17 am

    This is the only book of Pico Iyer’s that I have read and I didn’t think much of it. It sounds like some of his other work might be better. I heard Iyer once on the radio talking about how neither he nor his wife (the woman in this book) really spoke the language of the other. And he thought that that was a good thing.

  6. November 22, 2013 3:07 pm

    I’m glad to be warned about this book, the title sounds so charming! The replacement reads sound good, I’ve been obsessed with Japan for a while and really wanting to read something good besides Murakami. Thanks!

  7. aartichapati permalink
    November 23, 2013 10:50 am

    I think Pico Iyer did a whole TED talk about identity and not being forced to fit into one generalized race/ethnicity/nationality, etc., so I’m quite disappointed that he came off in such an annoying manner here. Sigh.

  8. November 23, 2013 9:28 pm

    I haven’t read this, it’s really too bad it isn’t very good. I think I’d have a lot of trouble with the issues you’ve raised as well!

    The replacement reads though — fabulous! “A Year in Japan” is the only one that is new to me, and I must say, I LOVED the Ozeki. Definitely a top read of the year for me.

  9. November 24, 2013 9:23 am

    I also loved Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’, but ironically, it was her earlier novel ‘All Over Creation’ I had in mind when reading the first few sentences of this post! Such a shame – I hope she writes something new soon, as I now don’t want to risk reading her debut novel, either.

  10. November 24, 2013 1:28 pm

    Argh, this sounds just dreadful. I’m sorry to hear that an author you were sure was going to have such great potential turned into such a dead end. That’s the worst. :(

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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