JUST in case anyone’s wondering, this isn’t a tale of a torrid love affair between monk and geisha. For a geisha story, you could always read Arthur Golden — if you haven’t already.. (no monk, though. Tsk).
I first read Pico Iyer when I got hold of Video Night In Kathmandu (his first book) some years back. I haven’t read him since, but I certainly have not forgotten him. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when I accidentally stumbled upon The Lady and the Monk at a second-hand bookstore in Penang, and bought it without a second thought – nevermind the ridiculous price I was charged for such a dog-eared, tatty copy (that could well be my fault cos I’m hopeless at bargaining).
Personally, I prefer the briskness of the first book, but The Lady and the Monk is still a wonderful read, a beautiful and poignant reminiscence of Iyer’s four seasons in Kyoto.
Short of stating the obvious, the story revolves around the theme of a lady and a monk – a premise the author constantly returns to via regular references to poetry written by famous Japanese writers and poets (often monks or ladies), and which represents the main characters in the book (the monk being Iyer himself and, the lady, a woman by the name of Sachiko).
The story begins with Iyer’s arrival at the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto in 1987 armed with a couple of suitcases, the name of a local Buddhist temple and a quest to learn about Zen and the elusive — and rather confounding — Japanese culture. The story details his encounters and friendships with locals and foreigners along the way: Mark, an artist from San Francisco learning to paint in the traditional Zen sumi-e style and who lived in Japan for about 15 years; Kazuo, Mark’s friend and a university teacher who is grudgingly in training for the Tendai Buddhist priesthood in order to take over his family’s temple; Matthew, a foreign lawyer also in search of Zen and a Japanese girlfriend (and hugely failing at both). He also meets Sachiko, a young housewife and mother of two struggling to free herself from the constraints of her culture and who is one of, if not the most pivotal character in the book. Sachiko comes across as both elegant and refined, fulfilling to perfection the role expected of a Japanese woman, daughter, mother and wife; who is just as inclined to wearing kimonos as she is to miniskirts and sneakers, loves American movies and rockstars, Monet and Maugham, and daydreams of the courage to be independent of the many responsibilities that shackle her. Through Sachiko, Iyer learns Japan’s complexities and contradictions and how, in spite of its attempt at embracing the West, its Eastern-ness always prevails. Very often throughout the book, I wondered if Sachiko was real or was she (and all the other characters) merely the perfect vehicle to illustrate the eccentricities of the Japanese.
Overall, I found Iyer’s narrative engaging and incisive and, occasionally, mildly caustic; as always, it is peppered with delightful wit and refreshing phraseology. My opinion that he is a master of description still stands: he has a way of making even the most mundane detail — like the arrival of spring — sound like the most memorable incident. I really like that despite not being a ‘serious travel guide’, the book with all its colourful characters coupled with Iyer’s interactions, his experiences and observations, is so accessible to any reader.
All said and done, I wonder how much Kyoto has changed since the book was published in ’92. Hopefully, it still retains the innocence and romance that Iyer so vividly depicted.