The Lady and The Monk

In an interview I heard, Pico commented on this book by saying that, looking back, it's amazing how much he thought he knew, and how little he knows today.

I think that's a good place to start a look at this book... with the fact that it was written by an amateur Japanologist of sorts, and even a new travel writer. These are the things that a reasonably young man felt and thought as he attempted to understand his place... in Kyoto, in the world, and in his own skin. The best parts of this book are where that young man philosophizes and creates meaning (even meaning that an older man might disagree with).

As a whole, I think this is a very good book, especially within its genre. I liked it, but in some ways, I more so respected it... and maybe that's why I took quite a while to finish it. I read a few chapters, then polished off a full book while I let it sit for a while. That's not an attack on the book, but it's not completely a compliment either. There were things that just kept me at a distance from being engulfed and washed over by this book... things.

And here, I approach the biggest "thing". I have a very hard time embracing a character whom I have such moral objections against. Always? No. I love the Silence of the Lambs, and don't consider Hannibal to be a role model. I love A Clockwork Orange, but certainly don't applaud rape. However, I would argue that in both examples, and many others, the anti-hero is always held at a distance and judged in some way by the author, either openly through direct comments, or conversations within the book, or through the story itself. Hannibal is charming and often witty, but we don't cheer his escape, and we never forget what he's done and will do again. Alex, is literally tortured for his sins. He comes out on top (depending on the version you read), but that's more a comment on society than anyhow justifying his crimes.

However, Pico (as I'm unsure if he is named in the book, but certainly it's understood to be mostly autobiographical) is never judged for his realistically being involved in a divorce. At times it feels like he uses this book as an attempt to justify his real life marriage. Repeatedly making sure we all understand that the former marriage was simply due to self destruct. Seemingly suggesting that he spent a year dating a married woman but they didn't have sex, and he never even noticed until late in the game that it was romantic in any sense.

Now, cuckolding is not murder, nor rape, but neither does it make for a pleasant or sympathetic protagonist. And, neither is a woman secretly cheating on her husband. For myself, it made me want so much more information; Did the father ever see his children again after the divorce? (30 years ago in Japan, I suppose not), Did they miss him? Did he want to see them, but the same societal bonds that hurt our Lady here forced him to suck it up and never see his kids again. Also, was there a time (early 1990's for example) where this whole story felt much more acceptable because we all know that Japanese men are robots without feelings who just work and work? At the time of publications, would rescuing a woman from a salary man be accepted as heroic without worry of deeper explanation or the character to show guilt?

As a whole, I think the whole book would have been better if the Lady was removed (not to mention the pidgin English gets very old very quick) and the author then could have padded the book with more descriptions of the life he experienced. Pico Iyer certainly has a beautiful way to express his views and experiences and a full book of those would have aged better.

I would still recommend this work, though I might put it at about a 3.5/5 and would love for a follow up book, another novel about the 30 years living in Japan since this one. I assume that book would be wonderful, but only if the author was willing to risk being the villain.