Review of Autumn Light -Japan’s Season Of Fire And Farewells
Pico Iyer’s Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells reads like a love letter to the country that Iyer calls home for several months each year. Married to Hiroko, a native of Kyoto who walked out of a traditional marriage with her two kids decades ago, Iyer has lived in Japan for thirty-two years on a tourist visa. The combination of his foreignness, his inability to speak the language, and the knowledge that he will never truly be included into the fold gives Iyer a certain critical distance from the subject of Japan, making this book an especially poignant meditation on his life.
Most people travel or move to exotic locations in search of novelty, to rejuvenate their jaded eyes and hearts, or to seek inspiration for creative pursuits. Iyer, however, takes the opposite path. At the start of his book, he patiently walks the reader through Deer Slope, the neighborhood in the city of Nara where he has always lived-”a ruler-straight, ten-block grid with streets named Park-dori and School-dori, laid out like a stage set from the Universal Studios theme park, a Japanese rendition of California.”
By casting a sharp eye on his daily routine, Iyer illuminates the extraordinary in the ordinary day. We become familiar with the neighborhood post-office, bakery, and health club, where he plays ping pong with a motley group of senior citizens. Despite the honest disclaimer “I’ve never been a great one for belief, or for trying to put words to what’s beyond us.” in the first few pages, Iyer proceeds to use language to do precisely that. And he does it beautifully.
At the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2019, Iyer mentioned that the death of his ninety-one-year-old father-in-law, a former resident of Hiroshima who escaped the nuclear bombing of his hometown due to deployment to far-flung Siberia, served as the stimulus to capture autumn, the season that “poses the question we all have to live with”: “How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying?” This question is the lodestone that draws together the book’s wanderings.
Autumn Light is not a travelogue nor a memoir in the strictest sense, but a blend of both. Divided into four sections, each indicated by a Roman numeral and preceded by a quotation, there is no set pattern to the essays that have been compiled for this book. They do not follow a simple chronology or theme-based structure. They cover the road trips that he took with his in-laws in Japan and one particular visit to the US wherein Hiroko had an episode of transient global amnesia. Through these essays, Iyer divulges details of the life he shares not only with Hiroko and her children, now grown, but also her extended family and neighbors who have accepted his presence.
Iyer the seasoned journalist is evident in the smooth way he inserts Japan-related trivia-a rapidly aging population means more diapers are sold to the elderly than to babies; cucumbers are carved into horses to urge ancestors to return for rituals honoring the dead; Kyoto is the most-visited city in the world outside of Mecca-into a book that otherwise reads more like a private journal or an intimate conversation.
While Iyer makes only fleeting references to his journalistic work reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism in other parts of the world, he takes great pains to recount the details of the warm welcome that he receives at the ping pong club each time he returns from his travels.
The ping pong club is called the Renaissance, which Iyer reluctantly joins at Hiroko’s behest. Despite his initial misgivings, Iyer finds himself drawn to the quirky group of senior citizens who demonstrate a zest for life that belies their advanced years. In his fifties when he first met the group, Iyer self-deprecatingly refers to himself as ‘proto-Beiber’ for being at least fifteen to twenty years younger than the other players.
He deftly sketches the group members and bestows names on them based on their appearance or characteristics: Bodhisattva, for her general air of friendliness; Charlie Brown, broad face, constant smile, slight air of haplessness; Emperor and Empress; Mr. Gold Tooth; Wyrd sisters; and Mr. Joy.
As a foreigner, Iyer is an outlier in this cozy ping pong community. He is enthusiastically introduced to the group-”Pico-san’s a writer! He comes from California”-and brought up to speed with the rules of their game. But it takes a few visits for Iyer to truly understand how the group operates:
I sensed that it was everything silent, as always in Japan, that bound us together. My friends were exceptional when practising; even the weakest players could keep a high-speed rally going for minutes. But get them into a game and hit it where they weren’t expecting it and they were instantly at a loss.
They were born for duets, I realized; playing with each other was their strength, treating each other as a part of themselves, as in a dance or an act of love. Playing against each other never would be.
I learned, therefore, never to say a word about the result of any game, even though some of the women would hoot and improvise a war dance if they scored a victory. In any case, we switched off pairs so rapidly that nobody lost for long-and two-set games guaranteed there weren’t so many losers.
As Iyer observes, a shared understanding of silence binds people together rather than setting them apart. This silence lends harmony to action itself, transforming it into a “duet” and “dance.” This observation-about competing in a way that is not about declaring a single winner, but about making as many people as possible feel that they are winners-is a beautiful insight.
To Iyer’s own amazement, he realizes that much of his writing (and learning) can be linked to his experiences in the ping pong club. Writing on another friendly match with an elderly lady, Iyer captures a shared sense of slowly emerging joy:
I walk back to collect one of her lightning returns, and wonder whether I could ever have foreseen, in bright youth, that my ideal of an exhilarating Saturday night would one day involve hitting ping pong balls to an eighty-three-year-old grandmother who says, so softly I can barely hear it, “I’m so glad I came today.”
While the ping pong group makes repeated appearances in Autumn Light, my favorite parts of Iyer’s book are his everyday conversations with Hiroko. Iyer has a nuanced take on the dynamics of family-whether with Hiroko’s estranged brother who has severed relationships with the entire family, or with Hiroko’s petulant aged mother who often forgets that her husband is dead. This sensitivity likewise extends to the relationship that he shares with Hiroko and her children. A parent myself, I was pulled up short by Iyer’s keen observation that “Every parent is found guilty before the jury of her children-until, perhaps, those children become parents themselves.”
Iyer is a master at describing the seasons. Most tourists (I include myself here) flock to Japan in the spring for the viewing of cherry blossoms. “Pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles,” Iyer remarks, the flowers “are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism.” The simile is turned on its head when Iyer continues, “But it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.” It is clear that his heart belongs to the autumnal season. Iyer tries to spend autumn in Japan every year regardless of his other commitments.
Defining autumn as “the season of subtractions, the Japanese art of taking more and more away to charge the few things that remain” and as “the season when everything falls away”, Iyer draws attention to the fragile beauty of autumn. “We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last.”
Iyer highlights the sweetness of autumn through descriptions of people and places, shrines and rituals, color and light. His observation of light, in particular, is stunning. One autumn morning, while spending time with his stepdaughter Sachi in central Kyoto, he observes: “The light is knife-sharp on this crystal day,” and goes on to describe the experience of stepping into the shrine of Nanzenji as entering “an intricate latticework of light and shadow, the sun making shifting shapes on the white walls, across the rakes-sand garden, on the greening moss. The light so fresh and clarifying in the quiet morning-sharpness and dryness define the season-that we might be stepping into a brand-new world.” In other places in the book, he simply describes the beginning of an ordinary day: “The sun emerges, the day begins to fill the blank spaces in” and “the sun begins to show up behind the far-off hill, and the whole room becomes a box of lemon light.” The colors of the sun remind us of the blazing maples and so display his exquisite skill to “put words to what’s beyond us.”
The topic of autumn, with its focus on aging and maturity, can become heavy. Iyer defuses this heaviness with humor. For example, he mentions that the neighborhood kids used to call him “Isoro,” meaning freeloader. In a society with a deep-seated preference for well-defined gender roles, he describes himself as the only man in the neighborhood “who doesn’t put on a suit and tie and go out to the bus stop every morning before dawn; even worse, I send my wife out, while I slouch around the neighborhood, unshaven, close to lunchtime.” He is not afraid of making himself the subject of the joke.
For her devotion to cleaning, his wife Hiroko is the target of merciless teasing by her family. “Dust never settles on her for long,” as Iyer remarks, but he transforms the teasing into high praise. He loves her for not only her freedom from dust, but also her “freedom from second thoughts, from the need to gossip, from malice or hunger for complexity; one of her sovereign gifts.” A lofty compliment from a spouse! It is surely of Hiroko that he is thinking when he reflects on the Day of the Dead observance, one of autumn’s many rituals: “Dying is the art we have to master-not death; late love settles into us as spring romances never could.”
What is perhaps more difficult than beginning a book about a season is ending it. Even as the lives of many of the characters in the book have ended by the time the reader reaches the final pages, there is a feeling of continuity, knowing that spring is around the corner from winter, and that life always endures, whether or not you are present to observe it.
Iyer’s own insight into the matter-where he writes that “endings seemed like sanctuaries in which humans hid to protect themselves from larger, wilder landscape, and it hardly mattered… whether they were happy or sorrowful, since the story kept unfolding”-helped give me a sense of closure.
In the last few pages, as the seasons turn, Iyer once again prepares to embark on his travels.
“What kind of story your book?” Hiroko asks, just two mornings later; a no-color blur is coming through the windows, and when we notice how all shade is absent, we pull back the doors and see snow drifting down, burying the already silent lanes of the quiet rectilinear neighborhood, making everything new.
The fact that she has as little sense of what I do for a living as I do of what she does has always been a shared relief; one fewer area to muddy with second-guessing.
“You writing autumn story?”
“Not so much story,” I say.
If autumn is a religion, it’s something you recite-or see with your eyes closed-more than put into words.”
Originally published at https://singaporeunbound.org on February 10, 2020.