In “The Lady and the Monk,” Pico Iyer, world traveler, stops in Japan for a while. There he falls in love with a woman, not only through talking to her, but through communicating with her between languages. Neither is fluent in the other’s tongue, so they must reach, endlessly, across a vast linguistic and cultural gap. I was lucky enough to have foreknowledge, and I knew that Iyer’s planned yearlong stay in Japan would in fact last a lifetime, and that the woman he had an affair with would become his partner of more than 20 years.
Iyer immerses himself in Japan, not only in the surface of what he sees but in the deeper well of what he can know. He is enamored of the mothers and children he sees walking the streets of Kyoto his first weeks there, but through his friendship with one of those mothers he comes to see the shuttered life they lead, comes to understand the emotions and pain beneath the quiet Japanese exterior.
Without ever veering into stereotypes, but with admitted reverence for the culture, Iyer writes the rarest of travel books: the kind that not only shows you what is out there, that not only shows you what lies beneath the sights, but that teaches you how to see. How to begin to understand.