Friday, May 23, 2003

love, the mystery unsolved

Abandon by Pico Iyer, Viking, January 2003. ISBN 037541505. Price Rs 450 (US$9.50), 354 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in May 2003).

Even before Islam supplanted communism as the mysterious enemy of western civilization, novels that blurred the boundaries between religion and politics had become commonplace. Most of these books, of course, were thrillers. None were about faith. Communism may be dead, but Belief still scares us. Abandon, the latest book from Pico Iyer, may be the first novel since the end of the cold war to take on the task. The result is a remarkable book, though its attempt at translating religious ecstasy is cryptic and, finally, unsuccessful.

Iyer, a writer of Indian extraction who was raised in Britain and now lives in California and Japan, is one of globalization’s first writers. Better known for his nonfiction writing--which has appeared in Time, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books and other top magazines—than for his fiction, Iyer nearly always writes from a perspective of displacement, seeking, perhaps, to explain the unfamiliar by knocking down all the usual borders. The titles of some of his books hint at what drives him: Falling Off the Map, The Global Soul, Video Nights in Kathmandu.

Abandon is thus, in some paradoxical way, familiar territory. Moving from California to Syria to Spain to England to India and to Iran as though these places were no more remote than Canada or Mexico, the novel traces the quest for understanding of John MacMillan, a British scholar of Sufism and Sufi poetry. Like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Abandon blurs the line between the detective story and literary investigation. Or, perhaps, between the mystery and the Mystery.

Sufism, or the mystical dimension of Islam, focuses on the surrender to the love of God. Unlike other Muslims, the Sufis believe that through this surrender—abandon in both senses of the word—it is possible to come close to God and experience his love while one is alive. The Sufi poets produced an immense body of literature to express the rapture of this state and guide others to achieving it. In Abandon, Iyer’s protagonist believes he has stumbled upon a lost manuscript penned by the most famous of these poets, Rumi, who wrote hundreds of poems in the 13th century and founded the Mevlevi Order of dervishes, better known as the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism. MacMillan’s detective work is both literal and literary, therefore, for he must discover not only whether the manuscript is genuine but also endeavor to understand what the poems mean.

The novel’s backdrop is intriguing. Though Iyer’s characters are scholars, this is a field where danger lurks and hidden treasures promise to resurface. Discussions of colleagues trail off into this realm… with professors who write articles under assumed names to protect their families in Iran, or students of Scientology who enter the witness protection program, an event explained dramatically (and with some unintentional comedy): “They found out about his thesis, I gather.” But the evocation of the fear and wonder that belief evokes in us is not without nuance. One professor confesses of his attraction to the study of Islam, “But I do have a regular person’s interest. It was the sixties, there was all this stuff in the air—Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Muhammad Ali, all of that. And the Moslems were always the big bad wolf in every story. I guess I just figured we were so busy making all these jokes about how they called us ‘the Great Satan,’ we didn’t stop to think we were calling them ‘the Great Satan’ ourselves. Except we didn’t have the balls to use words like ‘Satan’ and ‘infidel.’”

In this strange academy, the engaging voice of Iyer’s nonfiction writing serves him well. “The Sufis,” MacMillan scrawls for his postgraduate seminar, “so-called for the rough woolen gown they wear, or suf—emblem of their austerity, their voluntary poverty, their anonymity—were a small group of Moslems who began to gather in groups, often secretly, at the beginning of the eighth century, soon after the Prophet’s death. Their aim, quite simply, was to find a direct path to the divine…. Their goal was not to conquer the world, but to conquer themselves.” The message is clear: Although his characters are the victims of the Iranian revolution, Iyer’s subject is not the fanaticism of persecution, torture and destruction, but the fanaticism of ecstasy, of faith. It is an almost impossible subject.

Iyer turns to the metaphor that countless poets have used to link the divine to the mundane: love. “The Sufi ideal is one of love, but it is not the love of the compassionate mother, or of Jesus, he speaks of; it is the ravenous, consuming eros of the lover inflamed,” MacMillan explains to his class. Likewise, floundering with Rumi’s poems, MacMillan discovers himself falling in love with Camilla, a woman with her own mysteries. Seemingly damaged beyond repair, Camilla cannot allow herself to plunge into love. Instead of surrendering, she does what she can to sabotage her own chances for happiness, even though (a Californian through and through) she has a psychologist’s awareness of her self-destructive impulses. Struggling to convince her to let herself go, MacMillan comes to realize the extent to which he has manacled himself against happiness.

Metaphors resonate, and instruct, by showing us in a flash how two unlike things are alike. Their lessons burn like an instant revelation. But the comparison of love and faith, neither of which we know for sure, don’t strike with the same clarity. Perhaps that is why somewhere along the way, the love story of Abandon fails. There is too little of the familiar here. MacMillan’s love for Camilla is inexplicable. She has few charms, it is all too apparent, and her capacity to repel is infinite. What could be more unattractive than someone who cannot complete a conversation without uttering something as banal as, “I disappoint myself every day, every moment. You’re the first person in a long time who’s given me a chance to show I might not be completely worthless.” That’s a line that could only be delivered by someone who owns three or four cats, and Camilla keeps serving up the same swill. That MacMillan keeps asking for more is, to be frank, more difficult to believe in than God, not less. Only the investigation of the lost Rumi manuscript and MacMillan’s engaging thoughts on the nature of Islam—which Iyer valiantly resists reducing to the specter of terrorism--can keep this battered engine clunking along.