The Lady and The Monk by Pico Iyer

The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, by Pico Iyer, is one of the books I have most enjoyed reading this year. Pico Iyer writes beautifully and lovingly of Japan.

It is, in fact, a love story. Published in 1992, it’s about a year he spent in Kyoto, where he fell in love with a young, married Japanese woman with two little children, whom he first met at a Zen temple ceremony. Sachiko invited him to her daughter’s birthday party and the relationship took off from there.

Sachiko, according to Wikipedia, is actually Hiroko Takeuchi, with whom and whose two children Pico Iyer now lives in Japan. Few women have been portrayed as lovingly and beautifully as she is in this book.

Here is one example from chapter 14. They are falling deeper in love. Sachiko, sweet and sentimental, thinks he will be leaving Japan and returning to America at the end of the year. This is what she tells him. Pico Iyer writes:

As autumn drew towards an end, I found myself returning one day with Sachiko to Kobe, and on the train, as we sat by side, she reached up and unclasped, for the first time ever, her mother-of-pearl comb, letting her hair fall in a rush down the right side of her face. The suddenly loosened sensuality hit me like a shock. “This year,” she said. “Autumn more beautiful. I see beautiful colour, and many flower, and cosmos flower, little messenger of winter. But sometimes I sad. I thinking moon soon full, then small again; my heart little same. Now full. But future. I don’t know. Maybe very empty.” In response, I told her (Laurens) Van der Post’s story of how the moon renewed itself.

She nodded slowly, with determination. “I want build strong heart. Please you help. I want very strong, so when you go, I not so sad. Sometimes I little fragile” (she had learned the word from a Sting album). “But now I more confidence. Before, I say, ‘Be careful! He bird! He stay in Japan only one year.’ But now heart control, very difficult. I open window and you give me sunshine.” She smiled at me warmly. “Santa Barbara sunshine.”

Already, I could tell, she was savouring the poignancy our walks would have in memory, smoothed down and elegized in sepia tints. Already she was composing – and relishing – her reminiscences. And yet, with half her mind, wondering whether a happy Western ending might not be better than a melancholy Japanese one.

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