Pico Iyer prefaces the third chapter of his latest book, Autumn Light (Bloomsbury), with a remark made in an interview in 1982 by what he calls “the very English poet” Philip Larkin: “I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time. Some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.”
Iyer (who spends part of the year in California, where his mother lives, and part in Japan) has done a lot. Born to Indian parents in England who took him to the United States and then sent him to boarding school in Oxford, he has since travelled the world as a writer for newspapers and magazines — a “global soul” as the title of one of his earlier books had it. In Autumn Light, he’s at home, observing “the season of fire and farewells” in the sleepy old city of Nara. There he and his Japanese wife, Hiroko, have shared an apartment for more than 20 years, initially with her two children from her first marriage, who are now grown up.
Far from ignoring the passing of time, Iyer is dwelling on it, prompted by the death of his father-in-law, the increasing frailty of his mother-in-law and the decline in joints and limbs of the energetic pensioners with whom he plays ping-pong. He himself (in his early sixties now, according to his website, but only fifty-six in the book) is feeling intimations of mortality. Hardly surprising, when his friend the Dalai Lama, as soon as they meet, remarks on added pounds and thinning hair.
The book is a tender account of the literal autumn in Japan, with its glorious-but-nearly-gone foliage, its rites, rituals and signs offering “Maple Lattes”, and the metaphorical one as it affects the writer, family, friends and neighbours. Occasionally Iyer’s striving after the great truth yields only the small platitude (“Death can be hardest on the living”), but at his best he leaves the reader with what he felt on his first visit to Japan in the autumn of 1987: “the mingled pang of wistfulness and buoyancy”.