Elliott Bay Book Company will soon celebrate its fortieth anniversary. The Seattle Times reported that the store was collecting customers’ recollections of experiences they’d had there, “from meeting your spouse in the stacks, to attending memorable readings…” Below is the story I sent in.
When I showed up at Elliott Bay Books for a reading and signing one evening nearly ten years ago, I knew a little of Pico Iyer through two of his books, Cuba and the Night and The Lady and the Monk. I admired his storytelling, his willingness to reveal his imperfections, and descriptions that locked me into the settings of each locale he visited.
I remember our conversation as I handed Iyer a copy of his latest creation to autograph. “Of your earlier books,The Lady and the Monk is my favorite,” I said. “In fact I loved it.”
I read it in the year 2000 while flying to Tokyo with two work companions. I was looking for hints of the flavor of Japan, not a guide book. I wanted to know more about Japanese culture.
Iyer did not disappoint. As the title suggests, the book intertwines a theme common in Japanese literature: the attraction between the courtesan and the monk. While living in Kyoto, Iyer tests out life in various Buddhist monasteries. At the same time he meets a woman in a temple there who draws him into her life and becomes his cultural interpreter. She has a husband and two young children. Would he opt for a future that involved one of these attractions, try to unite them like some Zen monks had apparently done with success, or reject them altogether?
In the end Iyer did not feel a strong enough pull to stick with monastic life. He continued writing and traveling.
The “lady” in the book resolved her conflicts over whether and how she could expand the boundaries of her world, which were barely greater than the walls of her home and the expectations of her mother and disengaged husband. She became a tour guide and filed for divorce.
So much for the individual resolutions. The two of them parted at the end of the book. Was that all to the story? They were close, but were they a couple? Did they see each other again?
“It’s my favorite book, too,” Iyer said as he penned his name on the title page.
Dare I ask him about “the lady”? No. Too personal.
As if reading my mind, he looked up with a grin. “There’s something you’ll be interested to know. We’re still together.”