Pico Iyer The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto Where is he from?

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Pico Iyer

Where is he from?

  • Complicated question
  • He confesses to feeling at home in airports, where everyone is in between (Global Souls)
  • Parents are Indian, but he’s born in Britain
  • Choose an Italian name for him so classmates can pronounce it


  • Born in 1957
  • Parents are professors
  • Father = philosopher
  • Mother = religious scholar
  • Family moves to Santa Barbara when Pico is 7
  • Goes back and forth to England for schooling
  • Excels in school: scholarships to Eton, Oxford, Harvard


  • Teaches writing and literature at Harvard
  • Spends summers researching for Let’s Go: Europe editions
  • Joins Time in 1982
  • Travels and writes constantly
  • First book – essays on literature
  • Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East (1988)

The Lady and the Monk Four Seasons in Kyoto

Background to book

  • Travels to Asia (Thailand) and finds the experience transformative
  • Spends the night in Narita (stuck between flights) and feels strangely attracted
  • 4 “That first fleeting taste of Japan felt like the answer to some unspoken question. For through whatever curious affinities propel us towards people or places we have never met, I have always been powerfully drawn towards Japan.”

Testing a Theory

  • Goes on a 4-day trip with mother
  • 7 Wants to search for “the private Japan, and the emotional Japan– the lunar Japan that I had found in the poems of women and monks… If this imaginative Japan existed only in my mind, I wanted to know that soon, and so be free of the illusion forever….”

Finding a model way of living

  • 7 “In Japan, moreover, I wanted to put another daydream to the test: the vision I had always cherished of living simply and alone, in some foreign land, unknown.”
  • Buys a ticket, taking off for Japan on the first day of autumn

Why Kyoto?


  • He’s got the name of a temple
  • Kyoto as a city: Imperial capital, so rich in history
  • Rich in temples: lots of temples, and lots of famous ones (esp. along the Philosopher’s Path)

Kyoto cont’d

  • Modern and ancient
  • Number of foreigners
  • Geisha girls
  • Center for higher learning
  • UNESCO sites
  • Spiritual center

Four Seasons in a City

  • Measure of a year as a narrative device
  • Definition (clear arc and time frame)
  • Promise to look at the city in at least four different stages
  • Promise to concentrate on one local (in contrast to narratives that leave us breathless)

Lady and Monk

  • Connection to a monk seems logical
  • Connection to a lady? (Note my cover: Geisha girl!)
  • Interesting contrast
  • Note: Monks usually don’t interact with ladies
  • Hint of mystery



  • When he first gets to Kyoto he goes to live with a monk
  • Soon meets a lady at an initiation celebration at a temple
  • (Much later, we find it’s a story he tells Kachiko about unrequited love)


  • Non-fiction, but many references to storytelling
  • Some stories within the text itself
  • Also references to literature, poetry, cultural stories

Other techniques:

  • Incongruities
  • Gion= flower district
  • Also a temple
  • Lives in a monastery
  • Sneaks out to call NY
  • Temples to the east
  • Pachinko parlors,
  • Convenience stores
  • to the West

Birthday Party

  • Meets lady at the temple
  • Mostly, his world was filled with ladies and women—everyone else was working!
  • Sachiko invites him… cultural lesson in strangeness
  • He’s the only guest
  • Winds up playing with the children and inventing a raccoon story

Kyoto= Maze Excerpt

  • 57 Tries to find particular places, winds up going in circles, “defeated by the maze of Japanese planning.”
  • Realizes: he can’t plan epiphanies
  • Expectations: defeat themselves
  • His solution: Try to keep open, “waiting to see what kinds of things found me”

Zen as Paradox Excerpt

  • 65 Wants to cut through all the dualities, east/west, here/there, coming/going
  • Why?
  • Mind was “a devil’s advocate, an agent of diabolical sophistry that could argue any point and its opposite with equal conviction”
  • True things in life came not as thinking but as thunder

City as Contradiction

  • 78 Attraction of opposites esp. strong:
  • conservative city in a traditional society
  • Dotted with radical foreigners who did not or could not fit in at home
  • “Pairing of Western men and Eastern women was as natural as the partnership of sun and moon. Everyone falls in love with what he cannot begin to understand.”

Language Fun Excerpt

  • Records some of his conversations, descriptions are hilarious
  • 82 Fight over which bad language to use: “tug-of-war as to which should be the medium of confusion”
  • Sachiko bravely ploughs through English: “She was happy to plunge ahead without a second thought for grammar, scattering meanings and ambiguities as she went.”

Worse still…

  • Sachiko naturally tries to be ambiguous and thereby consensual
  • He’s had the same training in England: “Might it not be easier perhaps to try this road?”
  • Would go round in circles, ending up where they started
  • “Should me meet on Tuesday?” I asked her. “No problem! Yesterday, Thursday, okay!”


  • Narrative steps back and moves forward, then pulls back
  • Note contrast to Booth, Harrer, even Nicholl
  • Literary touches:
  • 107 “The sky was slivers of blue in a gray porcelain bowl”
  • 237 “Back home in Kyoto, the late-March days eased by in a seamless flow of blue epiphanies”

Technique—Rich References

  • 116 “Drifting along through the huge antiseptic spaces of Kobe’s lonely De Chirico streets, we chatted about Victor Hugo and Jacky Chan…”
  • 221 “It did not take a Roland Barthes to identify Japan as an Empire of Signs.”
  • 337 “the fishermen’s faces were lit up, in a flash of Rembrandt gold…”



  • 123 “Encouraging people to realize their potential was an especially dangerous occupation in a country that taught them to fulfill their duty instead.”
  • “To begin with, she was married, and I did not know what exactly that betokened, especially in a culture where marriage was often nothing more than separation by another name”
  • She tuned out her marriage—distant radio station

From Travel Story to…. Excerpt

  • 128 “In terms of everything I knew, things were fast becoming more and more slippery and strange…”
  • Husband: spectral figure on margins of her life
  • Treachery of language
  • Both have fewer inhibitions in the new language

More Quandaries Excerpt

  • 133 Quiet moment on the train
  • “Be careful! He bird! He stay in Japan only one year! But now heart control very difficult.”
  • “Santa Barbara sunshine”
  • He knows she’s wondering.. “whether a happy Western ending might not be better than a melancholy Japanese one.”

The Moment

  • The night before he has to leave Kyoto for a writing assignment:
  • 151 “After the kettle had boiled, I put down two mugs on the table and knelt down on the tatami to show her some earrings I had bought for my mother. She leaned forward till her hair was tickling my face. In the winter darkness of the tiny room, the fire glowing, I brushed back her hair, felt her lips touch mine…”



  • 156 Becoming native: “Coming from Kyoto-quasi-Japanese myself now—I found myself at sea abroad, forgetting to leave tips, reluctant to jaywalk across empty streets.. “
  • 157 “At home, in California, I felt Japanese enough to appreciate, for the first time ever, the lavender blush of hibiscus days and the piercing clarity of Venus in the denim sky.”


  • 195 “Coming to Japan in search of romance [is this what he says in the beginning?] I found myself now a protagonist in someone else’s dream, and found, too, that the favor was returned.
  • “This dream?” she often said, and the only answer I could find was yes.
  • But the section ends with another departure.


  • Couples by Kamo River


  • Sachiko keeps getting closer
  • Calls, has a cake, wants to stop by
  • 241 Brings small presents. “And though I could tell she was holding me hostage with kindness, I could also tell that she truly did do her thinking with her heart.”
  • “Before very long, as I looked around my room, I realized that Sachiko was colonizing me … her claims on me were everywhere”

More Narrative Waves

  • Sachiko is breaking out even as she’s reining him in
  • 244 claims she’s a “fox-woman” with a broken marriage
  • Extended information on Japanese marriages, and the separation they usually represent, with spouses operating independently of one another

Sachiko Hazards Wrath

  • She decides to take a course on how to be a tour guide operator
  • Her husband is bewildered
  • Her mother is angry
  • In the meantime, at the end of Spring, she decides to tell Pico goodbye


  • Philosopher’s Path


  • Her “goodbye” doesn’t last
  • He realizes how firmly rooted she is
  • 313 “I could see how hard it would always be for her to break away from Japan, and not only because Japan had never taught her to live without it.”
  • There’s a deep connection she doesn’t even realize she has

Final Ironies

  • 328 “No place is an idyll to its residents as no man is a prophet in his own household. And foreigners everywhere are more solicitous about the traditions of their adopted homes than natives are”
  • 329 “The tourists who came here for two weeks could not stop marveling at the silence of the place; the longtime residents heard only the clatter of pachinko coins, the syncopated roar of TV baseball crowds.”

What has he learned?

  • 329 “For my own part, I began to realize that every statement I made about Japan applied just as surely in the opposite direction.”

Last Scene

  • The night before he leaves, they go boating on the lake
  • 338 “It was only later, after I had left Japan, that I realized that everything had been there that night: the lanterned dark, the moon above the mountains, the dreamlike maiden in kimono. There was the Heian vision I had sought since childhood. And yet, by now, it was so much a part of my life that I had not even see it till it was gone.”

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