Travels in Paradise: Pico Iyer’s The Half Known Life

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Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is probably the first book that comes to mind when one imagines a pilgrim’s travels in paradise. A virtual best-seller since it was penned in the early fourteenth century, the book is divided into three parts: hell, heaven, and the intermediary realm of purgatory. It’s interesting to consider how it has always been the part about hell that has garnered the most attention. Not just by scholars either—it seems most people are, as a general rule, more interested in hell than in heaven.

Why is it so seemingly difficult for us to imagine paradise?

Pico Iyer, in his new book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, embarks on a journey to find out. The first thing he realizes is that many of the Shangri-Las of the world are places fraught with issues. And some of these –like the Holy Land and Kashmir—are more like warzones. Iyer explains in the opening pages of the book that “after years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict—and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences.”

Iyer begins his journey in Iran. This makes perfect sense, since our English word “paradise” is derived from Proto-Iranian, where it connoted a walled garden. Persian literature is filled with images of flowing fountains in gardens carpeted in grasses and flowers. In beautiful prose that has long characterized his travel writings, Iyer describes posters he sees in front of the Museum of Holy Defense in Tehran of beardless boys. These are the martyrs from Iran’s long war with Iraq, who are depicted going into battle with plastic keys around their neck to open the doors to Paradise. From the very start of the book, images of paradise are tied to those of conflict and war.

From Tehran to Belfast and then onto Pyongyang (the “people’s paradise”), he travels next to Kashmir, the dreamscape of his mother’s childhood. With snow-capped mountains encircling its apple orchards and water lily-tangled lakes, he recalls “how even Shah Jahan, cherished for his creation of the Taj Mahal, had constructed a black marble pavilion here, in the Shalimar Gardens, on which was inscribed, in Persian, ‘If there be a Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this.’”

And yet the old city of Srinagar is surrounded by checkpoints, barbed wire, and the armed patrols of what has become a never-ending modern-day conflict. It is not unlike the chaos and violence of Jerusalem, where Iyer spends several days in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church has long been a place of contention: its use and maintenance is divided between the Orthodox, the Armenians, the Roman Catholics and the Copts, with the Ethiopians having been pushed up on to the roof, where they still remain languishing.

Like everywhere else on his itinerary, fact is stranger than fiction. The church, he tells us, has seen its share of monks pulling out crucifixes and candlesticks to attack and murder each other right next to the Empty Tomb, the place where some Christians believe Jesus was interred. In this holy place of endless dispute and fighting, Iyer finds a quiet spot to sit within the church, in front of the small candle that someone had placed again on the stony ledge. Sitting quietly—invisibly?—he watches as

All thoughts of time dissolved—when a French girl, maybe fourteen, with thick glasses beneath a tumble of black curly hair, walked past and stopped as she saw the candle. She didn’t move for a very long time. She looked and looked at the candle, so small and ready to gutter out. She began to sob. A friend arrived and held her close. The girl received the comfort for a few moments, weeping freely, and together they began to walk away. Then she stopped and turned to look again at the candle, eyes glistening. The thin light flickered and wavered, and somehow continued to burn.

Known as one of our greatest living travel writers, Iyer’s journeys have long been of a spiritual nature. He traces this interest back to his boyhood boarding school in Oxford, which he writes was much like a monastery. From his visits to a Benedictine monastery in California four times a year to his work and travels with the Dalai Lama, Iyer is an old-fashioned spiritual pilgrim. A wisdom-seeker. In Japan, where he has lived for three decades, he remains a willing outsider. Neither learning the language or trying to become a permanent resident, he has sought a certain critical distance from the world. All the better to see it, hear it, smell it.

Returning to the question with which he begins the book, he wonders about the folly of trying to find paradise and peace in a world overcome by conflict. He describes watching the Dalai Lama—again and again—during his frequent tours across Japan, respond to someone’s lament about the disappointment of a dream not realized. From “peace to the Middle East, to the hope of reversing climate change, no matter what the dream, the Dalai Lama would respond the same way, by telling the petitioner: ‘Wrong dream!’”

As the Existentialists warned us, we are born into our life stories. We cannot choose our parents, place of birth, bank balance, career success, or anything else. To try and gain a level of peace amidst the disappointment and chaos of the world is perhaps the only real paradise. And this is the meaning of the book’s title, which refers to a quote from Herman Melville: “In the soul of man, there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life.”

As in his early books, Iyer is back on the pilgrim’s path “in search of paradise,” traveling to far-flung places, one after another. But he is older now, and wiser. A pilgrim not looking for answers so much as searching for ways to sit less uneasily with the universal human questions regarding sickness, and suffering, and death. This is, after all a book conceived of and written during Covid.

By the end of the book, we find ourselves in Varanasi, the holy city of death and cremation. Despite having Indian heritage, this is Iyer’s first trip to the sacred city, and he arrives as a thick winter fog descends on everything. He can scarcely see ten feet ahead, making navigation around the sites challenging. But isn’t that how life is? Aren’t we all grasping at straws as we walk half-blind in the fog?

Before Varanasi, Iyer visited Mount Koya, near Kyoto, in Japan. One of the sacred spots of the country, Koya-san is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805. Staying in one of the temples, he meets a Swiss monk named Kurt and asks him what the best season is to visit the monasteries. Kurt grows animated and tells him:

 ‘When you are living in a world of typhoon, of fire and lightning,’ Kurt had told me—Koyasan has been assaulted at least four times by major fires—’you are living in the second. You don’t wait for anything; you go out and use the day right now.’

Iyer concludes from this that paradise is simply a matter of being capable of finding the wonder within the moment. And “the fact that nothing lasts is the reason why everything matters.” Mount Koya is located mere miles from where he himself lives in Nara. And yet it is a world away. “If this was Shingon heaven,” he writes, “it meant that I had to take something of its undistracted clarity back to the fluorescent excitement of the in-between world in which I was dwelling, fifty-one stations away. The thought that we must die, I might have heard the two hundred thousand graves saying, is the reason we must live well.”

And to live well means to live wisely, with some small measure of the keenness of observation and poetry of reflection that Pico Iyer has painted in this beautiful book.

Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from Japanese for more than twenty years. Her reviews have appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, The Millions, Arts of Asia, the Dublin Review of Books, Asian Review of Books, Kyoto Journal, Books on Asia, the New Rambler Review, etc. She was the winner of the 2020 Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, judged by Joyce Carol Oates. More from this author →