The Lady and the Monk by Pico Iyer (thoughts)
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.
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? ;)