on 3 January 2012
"Niceties behind us, the stranger looked me in the eye. `I am porridge.'" Now it was my turn to look horrified. `Yes, yes,' he said, thinking that I doubted him. "I am pirate." This was little better. "PIRATE!" he shouted out."
A few years ago, I wrote a book about travelling around East Asia called Notes from the Other China. Some people liked it, others didn't. My first book, I'm not really happy with it and don't recommend reading it. It's derivative and disjointed, but it's original, or so I thought. I was defensively touting its originality on a discussion board once when someone asked, `What about Pico Iyer's Video Nights in Kathmandu?' Another commenter chimed in, `Yes, I was just thinking of that one. He's good.'
I thought, `Pico who?'
I bought Mr. Iyer's The Global Soul, read half of it, and dropped it off at a second-hand bookstore thinking, `Life's too short.' I was also happy in a way. Iyer wasn't that good. I found The Global Soul boring (brush fires in California) and fawning (the city of Toronto). `I can write better,' I thought, and then, thinking there must have been something to the book that launched Iyer's career, I bought Video Nights in Kathmandu and such illusions evaporated.
Video Nights in Kathmandu is a travel-lit classic. It's beautifully written and realized. It's insightful, engaging, and all those other favourable adjectives professional reviewers use to gush about a book. Iyer makes use of metaphor superbly, he uses just the right amount of comedy, he's excellent at analysing and dissecting cultures, and he writes with genuine empathy, and it's this last quality that taught me something about travel writing.
My go-to travel writer is Paul Theroux: opinionated, direct, fond of calling people fatsos; a cerebral and super-knowledgeable adventurer extraordinaire; a fascinating figure and fine writer who's written about nearly every country on Earth, but an egotistical grump sure to have the last word. Most travel writers are cutting, even well-bred, Eton-educated ones like Colin Thubron and the elitist Jan Morris. Yet, Iyer isn't cutting at all, and still manages to convey the absurdities if travel, the cultural misunderstandings, the peculiarity that accumulates the further you wander from home.
This book was written in the 1980s, so it's dated in a sense, but to readers with an inkling of historical awareness and appreciation this only adds a dimension. The book's subtitle, And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East, speaks to the Americanization of Asia, or at least the superficial appeal and influence of Hollywood movies and rock music. There are frequent references to Rambo and Born in the USA, but they're acceptable, a thread that sews together the diverse bolts the writer visits: Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, The Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan.
I've been to most of these territories and countries, and reading about them in North America teleported me back to a quadrant of the world I lived in for over a decade. I especially liked the sections on Burma and the Philippines. I never made it to Burma; I've never read commentary so accurate on the Philippines.
Iyer didn't spend all that much time in the region (though he returned, and still lives in Japan), but he compensates for a lack of knowledge with keen observation and by following what might writing's golden rule: write about what you know. In India, Iyer ruminates on the film industry; in Japan, he sticks to baseball. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be interested in reading about the Indian film industry or Japanese baseball, but Iyer shows you they are extensions of the country and culture. He makes you want to read.
This book is a gem, and anyone wishing to head off to Asia for a spot of travel would do well to read it. More than three decades later, Iyer's East Asia is still there.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World