Resensie: The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

The Lady and the Monk

Author: Pico Iyer. Published 1991.

When Pico Iyer decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery, he did so to learn about Zen Buddhism from the inside, to get to know Kyoto, one of the loveliest old cities in the world, and to find out something about Japanese culture today – not the world of businessmen and production lines, but the traditional world of changing seasons and the silence of temples, of the images woven through literature, of the lunar Japan that still lives on behind the rising sun of geopolitical power.

All this he did. And then he met Sachiko.

Vivacious, attractive, thoroughly educated, speaking English enthusiastically if eccentrically, the wife of a Japanese "salaryman" who seldom left the office before 10 P.M, Sachiko was as conversant with tea ceremony and classical Japanese literature as with rock music, Goethe, and Vivaldi. With the lightness of touch that made Video Night in Kathmandu so captivating, Pico Iyer fashions from their relationship a marvelously ironic yet heartfelt book that is at once a portrait of cross-cultural infatuation – and misunderstanding – and a delightfully fresh way of seeing both the old Japan and the very new.

Review by Manu Prasad:

In the autumn of 1987, Pico Iyer begins his journey into Japan, one that would last a full cycle of seasons. Depending on the prism you choose to see it through, the book could be many things.

It could be a travelogue, though quite different from any I have read yet, and yet one that not only dispels any 'second-hand' notions (eg. the Japanese' take on Kurosawa was surprising) but also captures the nuances of a place unknown to me, in a very sensitive manner.

It could be the journey and yearning of one human being to understand and experience a culture alien to him/her. Him, from the perspective of Pico in Japan, whose original wonder and positive bias changes into a more pragmatic view as time passes, and her, from the perspective of Sanchiko, a vivacious Japanese lady with a husband and two children, whose heartfelt desire it is to escape the confines and constraints of her culture and upbringing.

It could be a glimpse into the world of Zen – its monasteries and about living in the moment, without the baggage of the past or the future.

It could be a relationship between cultures – not just east and west, as shown between the author and Sanchiko or other nuances captured through various other characters, but also within Japan itself – the free spirited Sanchiko versus her friends and family who are against this freedom she desires and wants her to just make the best of her marriage and the duties it entails.

Or it could be an elegant love story, with Japanese poetry and beautiful descriptions of nature, and in the way of Japanese, one with a poignant ending, just like the story which seems to be the inspiration for the title.

A wonderful read, and an armchair journey that has given me much to think about.


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