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The Half Known Life: Finding paradise in a divided world by Pico Iyer

09 June 2023

John Pridmore reflects on earthly ‘paradises’

PICO IYER’s latest book is a kaleidoscopic travelogue that mulls over his rich memories of parts of the world said to have something of paradise about them. We join him on a fascinating journey, though many, if not most, of these supposed paradises turn out to be rather nasty places.

Iyer takes us first to Iran and so to a culture that has given us both the word “paradise” and many haunting images of its delights. He finds Iran a hall of mirrors, “an infinity of reflections”, where little is what it seems, and where paradise must be sought within, if only from fear of a viciously oppressive religious regime.

The beauty of Kashmir brings Iyer close to tears. Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, said of this enchanted valley: “If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this.” Yet Kashmir has become the byword for unresolved conflict. Iyer does not explore the terrible irony of the Ahmadi Muslim belief that Jesus Christ is buried there, never to rise again. Given what we have done to this lovely land, it would be fitting were it so.

And so to Jerusalem. There, chatter about “paradise” seems absurd — unless, that is, we take refuge with the Ethiopians on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Not every part of the world which Iyer visits will strike the reader as equally evocative of paradise. Ladakh, certainly, can seem a heavenly place, if you avert your gaze from what is going on there, and even Sri Lanka, soaked in blood, bespeaks somewhere better. At least it does, Iyer suggests, if we travel there with Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal as our guide.

And then there’s Varanasi. Varanasi is incomparably malodorous, and yet the Ganges, flowing with sewage beneath the city’s burning ghats, is for the pilgrim another Jordan beyond whose foetid waters a brighter shore beckons. It is the paradox of paradise that it is planted, so it seems, in the very locations that would exclude its possibility. Embracing that paradox, Iyer invites us to join him on a trip to North Korea.

Pico Iyer never reaches what George MacDonald simply called “the high countries”. Had he visited Bhutan, he would, perhaps, have recognised that, even on this benighted earth, some places allow us a fleeting glimpse of somewhere happier.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.


The Half Known Life: Finding paradise in a divided world
Pico Iyer
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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