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- A sentimental tale of postmodern refugees and floating texts

Abandon: A Romance By Pico Iyer, Viking, Rs 450

“The age of late capitalism,” Pico Iyer tells us in a parody of academic prose in Abandon, “is an age of global scattering: heirlooms, secrets, flying across the planets as when a vase is shattered.” Iyer’s romantic tale of postmodern refugees, texts and persons in transit around the globe, presents a disturbingly sentimental view of this process. What may strike the ordinary reader as the dark face of contemporary barbarism is transformed in his fiction to a self-approving love affair, on the part of the affluent West, with Jelaluddin Rumi and the texts of Sufi mysticism. Since poetry is of little use by itself, these are served up in a heady cocktail with a beautiful but abandoned Californian waif, much given to producing poems and anagrams of her own.

Iyer’s hero, an Englishman with the incredible name of John Macmillan, is a student of Sufi texts at the University of Santa Barbara. Periodically he makes excursions to the mysterious, despotic and untidy East — Damascus, Delhi, Isfahan — lured by the promise of heretical manuscripts smuggled out of Syria and Iran, in a bastardized version of the process that initiated the European Renaissance of the 15th century. Echoes of a Hermetic revival are, however, purely incidental. No such conclusion awaits the arrival of these texts in the new centres of global capital. And Iyer’s hero is no Petrarch, though he pursues his own Laura. Macmillan, an imperfect scholar with more money than sense, can barely read the manuscripts he sees, has no clue as to whether they are genuine or not, and in any case is almost wholly caught up in his own Californian version of a Sufi love affair.

It is this affair that provides the impetus, such as it is, to a meandering narrative that seems reluctant to admit it is taking place in some version of the real world. Early in the book, trying to deliver a packet he has been given in Damascus, Macmillan meets the distracted and beautiful Camilla, a Californian stray much given to New Age platitudes and plaintive cries for emotional reassurance. Their relationship flourishes, as it is bound to do given Macmillan’s inability to distinguish between writing a thesis and writing a love-letter. In a rare moment of critical awareness, Macmillan’s supervisor actually rebukes him for this, but the student seems unmindful of his lesson.

Critical awareness of the most elementary kind is almost wholly lacking in Iyer’s novel. Deficient in humour and irony, it is a sentimental narrative which betrays symptoms of the romantic malaise that has afflicted other contemporary writers as well, notably Vikram Seth. Given that the other side of this coin is the unrelieved depressiveness of Rohinton Mistry, the future of English writing by authors of Indian origin suddenly appears rather bleak. Certainly, one would not wish to trade a global soul for Iyer’s current offering of global soulfulness.

Without wishing to pronounce on the authenticity of Iyer’s representation of the world of Sufi scholarship in the West, one cannot but find the picture a sad one. There is at least one brilliant account of a lecture on comparative religion to a mixed Californian audience, but Macmillan’s transactions with the academic world are otherwise conducted in an atmosphere of tyranny and suspicion. Unfortunately, the sense of an actual surveillance machinery, whether in contemporary America or in Assad’s Damascus, is considerably diluted by Iyer’s persistence in treating his hero and heroine as God’s spies. The parallel with John le Carré appears deliberate; certainly he is recalled in an odd reconnoitring mission Macmillan undertakes to his old university, Oxford. But le Carré’s universe of espionage has more substance to it than Iyer’s world of floating texts, missing manuscripts, exiled scholars and travelling Englishmen. It is true that Iyer’s Englishman is also a naïve and sentimental lover, but at least George Smiley reads his Schiller.

The novel attempts to justify its title by a series of extended meditations on the theme of abandonment, human and divine. These disquisitions are only partially redeemed by quotations from Rumi; rather, they have the disturbing effect of transforming Rumi into a kind of New Age prophet, like Kahlil Gibran. Attempted profundities easily give way to exchanges like “you’ve shown me a better world and then walked off with the key”. The dust-jacket promise of a “mystical romance in the classic Persian tradition brought into the bleached sunlight of Southern California today” should have warned us: the marriage of the eternally old with the eternally young was never likely to be more than a Malibu Beach union. This is a pity, because Iyer’s novel is terribly, frighteningly sincere.

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