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Book review: In ‘Autumn Light,’ life is a circle through seasons

May 14, 2019

“Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells,” the new book from Time magazine travel writer Pico Iyer, is a poignant meditation on the evanescent nature of life in general and of traditional Japan in particular.

Iyer, American son of Indian parents, admits to almost ritually spending half of his year in the United States taking care of his mother, who has a home in California, and half of his year in Japan with Hiroko, his beloved wife of over a quarter-century.

His book becomes a subtle contemplation of two cultures and a specific deconstruction of the regard Japan has not only for tradition but for seasonal change, with a specific reverence for autumn — “the season of fire and farewells.”

“Autumn Light” structures itself as a sort of memoir of the recent year that Hiroko’s father died. He was a man who survived the bombing of Hiroshima only because he was away fighting elsewhere — and willingly — for his native land. It is during this year that Hiroko — whom Iyer describes as having “radical freedom from care” — decides to place her mother, who rarely remembers that her husband has just died, in a facility that can care for her.

Iyer finds time to contemplate the lives of his two adult stepchildren, especially stepdaughter Sachi, who has survived Hodgkin’s disease, an illness “almost unknown in Japan.”

In addition, he tries to come to some understanding of Hiroko’s brother Masahiro, a well-respected Jungian psychologist, who cut off all contact with the family as soon as his sister left her first husband to marry Iyer and rear her children.

But “Autumn Light” is hardly some sort of tell-all memoir. The richness of the book is in Iyer’s words and contemplations, as he approaches old age, on how to accept the brevity of existence along with the inevitability of change.

For him, any answer to any of his questions is to be found in the regard with which Japan holds the inescapable mutability of the seasons.

Because of his ongoing schedule of personal and professional responsibilities, it is autumn at the start of Iyer’s time in Japan each year. Listen to the luminous poetry of his early description of that season: “Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.”

Those maple leaves appear time and again, but never more delicately than as a symbol for the fire and farewells of autumn.

Also moving are the intimate moments during Iyer’s seemingly uneventful days. There are visits to the local post office, where he is helped in choosing just the right stamps for his mail to other countries. There are very personal accounts of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. There is an old woman with her sketchpad making drawings in a deer park on an autumn afternoon. There are friendly, delightfully revealing conversations with the local Zen master.

Most importantly, there are the games of ping-pong that

Iyer joins in at his local health club, which “feels like stepping into the thick of a society in the middle of a convivial, long-running drama in which I have to tease out every turn and nuance.” It is there that Iyer experiences different ways of seeing, and there that he finally learns to see.

For “Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells” is about acceptance of mutability. “We’re so convinced we’re moving forwards, when all I seem to do is go round and round with the seasons, certainly no wiser, and often only more sure of how much I cannot know.” This is what Pico Iyer comes to accept by the end of his haunting, incandescent musings.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.