‘Autumn Maple Leaves At Takao’ by Dōmoto Inshō (1891-1975)
‘Autumn Maple Leaves At Takao’ by Dōmoto Inshō (1891-1975)

The beauty of what’s fleeting

  • Pico Iyer’s new book is a meditation on mortality, resilience and the enduring appeal of Japan in his life
  • ‘Autumn Light’ deals with the death of Iyer’s father-in-law and the upheavals it causes in his wife Hiroko’s family

There is a scene halfway into Pico Iyer’s new book, Autumn Light, where he is walking on a bright November day in a park in Nara, the ancient seat of Buddhism in Japan, where he lives with his wife Hiroko. “Across the world, people are marking the Day of the Dead today, but in the park, the air so cleansed that the trees seem to gleam in the freshening morning, it’s not skeletons I see so much as aging elders struggling for breath," Iyer writes. “Dying is the art we have to master, it seems to say—not death."

This observation, at once suffused with life and mortality, sums up the spirit of Iyer’s delicately pitched memoir. A record of his long absorption with Japan and Japanese culture, it is set over the course of one autumn, the “season of fire and farewells", as he calls it in the subtitle, haunted by deaths and infirmities. The book opens with Hiroko calling him in the dead of night in Florida with news of her 91-year-old father being hospitalized. Two days later, he is dead. And so, an autumnal mood begins to settle in Iyer’s mind, becoming a filter for him to reckon with his circumstances, as also to better understand the structures of feeling that calibrate contemporary Japanese society.

From his elderly widowed mother, who lives all alone in the hills of California, to the motley group of geriatric table-tennis players he hangs out with in Japan, Iyer casts his keen eye on a range of characters, alert to their fears and frailties, their irrepressible joie de vivre and quiet courage. These are all people trying to salvage dignity and calm amidst the storm and stress of old age, as their minds and bodies begin to succumb to the depredations of the years.

In spite of the elegant cadence of his prose, Iyer does not paper over the harsh truths—rather, the latter seem to become ever more sharply defined against the fading light of the season, suspended in that limbo when the memory of warm summer days persists even as the chill of winter slowly crawls over.

Autumn Light begins, in a sense, where Iyer left off in The Lady And The Monk: Four Seasons In Kyoto, his youthful account of living in Japan for a year, published in 1991. Nearly three decades have passed since his first extended stay in the country, and, in these years, Japan has entered his consciousness in ways he had scarcely anticipated. His love for Japanese literature and attraction to its culture were never in question. “It was in autumn that I first got upended by Japan," he recalls in Autumn Light, “and realised that not to live here would be to commit myself to a kind of exile for life." But if his sentiments were romantic and wistful all those years ago, they have been tempered by his relationship with Hiroko, who we encountered as “Sachiko" in The Lady And The Monk.

When Iyer first met her, Sachiko was “a thirty-year-old girl with daydreams", mother to two cherubic children and a profoundly dissatisfied wife to her dutiful but unimaginative Japanese husband. As she befriended “Pico-san", who was to her like a bird that flits around the globe without fetters, Sachiko grew aware of her circumscribed life as a homemaker, her hunger for adventures forever condemned to remain unfulfilled. Her new-found companion, to her friends and family, was just another gaijin, “a foreigner", a figure of exotic interest but one not to be trusted, least of all admitted into the circle of trust. But this slight Indian, who stuck out like an anomaly next to her immaculate Japanese demeanour, gave Sachiko, as she said, a “new heart". And she, in turn, gave him a whole new culture and way of life.

As in the earlier book, Iyer continues to report Hiroko’s speech intact, charged with her idiosyncratic syntax and utter disregard for tenses. His own Japanese, Iyer admits, is not free of clumsiness either. But instead of acting as barriers, these linguistic differences nourish their relationship with a sense of novelty.

The gulf between their temperaments is also telling. While Hiroko “doesn’t stop to think" and the “dust never settles on her for long", Iyer is the overthinking writer, prone to brooding ruminations. Hiroko’s evolution from a bike-riding, feisty woman who valiantly resisted the strictures of her society, to a guilt-ridden daughter bereft of her father and rattled by the disintegration of her mother, doesn’t deplete her steely fortitude. Even at her most vulnerable, she embodies an essential Japanese acceptance of transience and melancholy—like the Zen masters and haiku poets of her country, she remains sensitive to monoganashii, the beauty of what’s fleeting.

Much of Autumn Light, like its companion volume, is resonant with Iyer’s struggle to fathom the many contradictions that define the Japanese temperament, though the lightness of The Lady And The Monk, its sense of enchantment, is understandably mellowed here.

“Japan opens up the world," Iyer writes, “and then worries that the world is diluting Japan". Deeply embedded in family values, it is also a society where filial ties have become frayed. Hiroko’s brother Masahiro, a Jungian psychoanalyst trained in the US and Switzerland, for instance, renounces his ties with his family after she decides to divorce her first husband and marry a gaijin. Even the death of their father and their mother pining for him in the throes of memory loss don’t thaw his icy heart. At the club where Iyer plays table tennis with a bunch of retired locals every week, he witnesses similar tales of loneliness and abjection. And yet, in spite of such dire predicaments, he is struck by the Japanese drive to remain robust, fortified by the wisdom of their ancients and the “gift for phasing out a past that can no longer be amended".