A Rumi of One’s Own

Novelist Pico Iyer Navigates the Spirit Level

The mystics of three religions leave their marks on the face of Granada. The Zohar, the central text of the Kabbalah, was written by one of the city's native sons, Moses de Leon. Granada's monasteries include one built by Saint John of the Cross, as he struggled to find a place for his ecstatic Christian practice in the rigid dogmatism of Spain. And the jewel of the city, the Alhambra, stands as a shrine to the days when Sufi poets first poured their passions into verse, centuries before Rumi needed an agent. It is there, in the corridors of the Alhambra, that John Macmillan, the secular mystic at the center of Pico Iyer's new novel, Abandon, has the first of several epiphanies that let light into the pages of this dark, affecting book.

John, a British graduate student in Santa Barbara, has come to Spain hunting for lost Sufi manuscripts—poems by the Persian masters that were smuggled out of Iran in the tumult of Khomeini's revolution. He stands in the first in a series of connected rooms in the Moorish palace and finds it lit by a candle. As he walks through the chambers, the light diminishes and the pooling gloam draws him deeper. He reaches the last, and in a moment of clarity, he thinks of a woman, Camilla. Having left California partly to escape their tangled relationship, he finds himself instead drawn closer to her and touched by a mysterious peace. Abandon follows John as he moves toward and away from Camilla, Sufism, his new life in California, and the love he left behind in England. In an interview with the Voice, Iyer explains that he chose not to rely too heavily on "the false comfort of explanations"; the elliptical, occasionally repetitious plot will leave some readers cold. But those who persevere will catch a glimpse of a man transformed by love.

Iyer models John's transformation on the story of Rumi, the most famous of the Sufi mystics, whose encounter with a wandering, wild-eyed dervish named Sham changed him forever. "It suggests that the agent of transformation can be the most unlikely," Iyer says. In John's story, the unlikely agent is a California cliché made flesh. When Camilla isn't preparing for her unspecified auditions, she wallows in the pain of a traumatic middle-class childhood, concocts spur-of-the-moment adventures, or writes him romance-killing "relationship" letters: "I'd never want to see me again if I were you. I never want to see me again even though I'm not you. . . . I think I've used up all my IOUs. You've tried so hard to get the better of my demons, and I don't think anyone could try harder. But they've been in there a long time, and they don't give up easily." Having subtitled the book "A Romance," Iyer seems to promise a love story of the kind that made A.S. Byatt's Possession a bestseller: cerebral, sexy, and spiced up by literary detective work. In places, Abandon is all of these things, but it leaves the central romantic drama veiled in mystery. It is never entirely clear why John and Camilla fall in love, or whether they have really conquered her "demons" and his bookish passivity. Iyer says he intentionally chose two lost, mixed-up souls, one terrified of being abandoned by her lover, the other terrified of abandoning himself to love (they trip over abandonment issues on every page), in order to create "the possibility of transformation." But the approach remains somewhat frustrating.

Iyer: re-imagining California from Islam's point of view
photo: Derek Shapton
Iyer: re-imagining California from Islam's point of view


By Pico Iyer
Knopf, 352 pp., $24
Buy this book

More convincing—and moving—is John's improbable absorption into Sufi mysticism. His initial scholarly detachment eventually gives way, and he starts to feel the heat of the verses inside himself. What happens to him is something entirely different from the usual path of the modern seeker finding something "relevant" in the spirituality of a pre-modern society. Instead, he learns to follow the advice of his mentor, Sefadhi, an expatriate Iranian professor: "Remember, please, to keep the poets higher than your thoughts of them. Don't pull them down to your level; let them draw you up to theirs." Through Sefadhi and John's other guides to the Sufis, the book launches a powerful critique against American pop mysticism—Rumi is now the bestselling poet in the United States, having replaced Khalil Gibran and Pablo Neruda as the poet of choice for the sensitive lover. While he has never studied Sufism, Iyer writes frequently about Zen Buddhism and retreats regularly to a Catholic monastery in California. "Anyone who really knows Rumi would think they're getting the wrong end of the stick, and taking what are sacred poems and using them for secular means," Iyer says. "That's the worst thing you can do."

Although this is only his second novel, fans of Iyer's travel writing will recognize Abandon's keen sensitivity to what is lost and gained when two cultures meet. Here, he turns his gaze to California (read: America) and re-imagines it from the vantage point of Islam—a word that, he explains, can be translated as "abandon." It is the California of exiles and disappointed dreamers, and it was Iyer's home for more than 30 years. (After years of dividing his time between Santa Barbara and Kyoto, he now lives, officially, in Japan.) He writes about California with a native's ease, capturing the intimacy and melancholy of its fierce landscape: "Everything changed fast here, like the weather in the hills, and people reached for things with the terror of souls not sure they'd ever see the chance again."

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