The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer — seeking paradise in the modern world

A misty landscape, with a single tree in the foreground and tree-covered mountains in the distance
Gulmarg, Kashmir: an earthly paradise © Alamy Stock Photo

“Of Paradise, I cannot speak properly, for I have not been there,” professed the unknown 14th-century author of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Heavenly or earthly, the topic of paradise has long fascinated writers, and seeking it in our conflicted modern world is the subject of acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer’s latest book, The Half Known Life.

As a regular practitioner of solitude, a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama and with more than a dozen books and several decades of pilgrim-like wandering behind him, Iyer is more qualified than most writers to grapple successfully with such a slippery theme. Over 10 chapters he visits various destinations or “paradise places”, several of which have been shaped by thorny histories such as Jerusalem, Belfast and Kashmir (“I found it hard to imagine Kalashnikovs in the apple orchards . . . a week later”). This is because, as he puts it: “Paradise has to be found not just in the middle of life, but in the midst of death.”

This is a travel book where the ultimate destination is not really a place at all, but a feeling or state of being. For that reason, the book is unique and uniquely mystifying, though not in a bad way.

The motive for writing is straightforward enough: “After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict.” Readers of Iyer’s previous books may recall that ideas surrounding paradise have cropped up briefly elsewhere, including in his shrewd-eyed study of culture clashes, Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), where he discusses Nepal’s commercialisation of utopia. I suspect that this book has been a long time coming.

Iran is a natural starting point, with its paradisal gardens and its “paradise of words”, care of poets Hafez and Ferdowsi. But enlightenment for the outsider proves remote and Iyer is wary of bugs in hotel rooms and of being followed. The country, he admits, “constantly shimmered a little out of reach, leaving me wondering whether the longing for an ideal world might not be a kind of curse, even a heresy”.

In the “holy turbulence” of Jerusalem — somewhere no one expects easy answers — he finds that by returning regularly to the spartan Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is liberation to be found from religious turmoil and competing voices. Serenity, therefore, is a form of paradise. And it is exactly there that the ghost of Herman Melville lingers, too, the author drawn to that very chapel time and again and whose Moby-Dick inspired the title for this book with the line “the horrors of the half known life”, a sentence in which Iyer sees the chance for transformation, as the half known life “is where many of our possibilities lie”.

Paradise in its tangible form can also be a corrupting force. “As in Kashmir, but more dramatically, Sri Lanka seemed to owe much of its sorrow to its centuries-old status as an earthly paradise.” Fought over, colonised and “filled with disquieting charge”, just as beauty is ambiguous, paradise is beset with complications.

Trips are not specifically dated or ordered — the reader is told “not many seasons later” or merely “one sunny winter” — but, given the transcendental nature of this book, vagueness surrounding when journeys were taken can be forgiven. Less pardonable, perhaps, is the occasional omission of surnames. “Jonny” in Kashmir is probably the author and tour operator Jonny Bealby of Wild Frontiers, yet we are not told so, and while we are given the title of the book of an author friend he writes about over several pages, Heaven and Earth, it is up to the reader to deduce it is probably Nicolas Rothwell.

These ambiguities can be distracting, but they don’t detract from what is a luminous and absorbing book, and one that is good to think with. By the end, the message is graspable and clear: if paradise exists, it is not on the other side of the planet but in daily life. “Paradise, in short, is regained by finding the wonder within the moment,” as Iyer succinctly puts it. Right here, right now, or else nowhere.

The Half Known Life: Finding Paradise in a Divided World by Pico Iyer, Bloomsbury £16.99, 240 pages

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