Where on Earth is paradise?

Pico Iyer searches for an answer in his latest book, which takes him to some particularly troubled places
January 25, 2023

The Half Known Life: Finding Paradise in a Divided World
Pico Iyer (RRP: £16.99)
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After 50 years of globetrotting, the celebrated travel writer Pico Iyer asks himself whether it is possible to find paradise in a violent, fragmented world. In pursuit of an answer, he stitches together a selection of his trips to beautiful, troubled spots, including Jerusalem and Kashmir, for his latest book.

At first, his enquiry seems too wide and too vague. Iyer’s disparate writings on Iran, Israel and Australia only scratch the surface of the problems in each country, while “paradise” itself is defined too broadly. The author’s visit to Broome, a remote town hundreds of miles from Perth, is especially lacking in depth: interesting snippets about, for example, the effect of the 19th-century pearl boom on its Aboriginal community, do not receive further investigation.

However, the book improves immensely as it progresses through stops in Sri Lanka, Japan and India—and as Iyer’s conversational skills become more apparent. His exchange with the caretaker of a Sri Lankan colonial cemetery is touching, as is his visit to the Varanasi home of a 78-year-old Indian professor who starts reciting Paradise Lost from memory. Striking images also drift into the text: the roofs of Japanese temples resemble “the prows of seagoing vessels about to sail off into the mist”. 

The book’s search for paradise comes to take on an internalised dimension, beyond the aesthetic and religious. To quote Milton, the quest is to find “a Paradise within thee, happier far”. For Iyer, this means coming to terms with uncertainty in a world that “seems always to simmer in a state of answerlessness”.