<B>Pico Iyer's mystical journey</B>Given that Pico Iyer is best known for his idiosyncratic travel writing, it comes as no surprise that the best sections of his new novel, <B>Abandon</B>, are set in foreign locales such as Syria, Spain and Iran. <B>Abandon</B> shares some common themes with Iyer's nonfiction writing, particularly the uneasiness that can occur when disparate cultures converge in a shared place. Unlike the travel books, though, the novel takes place in a landscape of the author's imagination, albeit one that approximates our contemporary world.
<B>Abandon</B> begins like one of Graham Greene's entertainments. John Macmillan, a graduate student in Damascus, pays a visit to a reclusive Islamic scholar, who asks him to deliver a small package to someone in California. Back in Santa Barbara, John tracks down Kristina Jensen, another scholar of Islam. When he goes to deliver the gift, however, he meets Kristina's sister, Camilla. She is a mysterious, emotionally disturbed woman who will insinuate herself into John's life in ways he never thought possible.
John, an Oxford-educated Englishman, is in California to study the work of the Sufi poet, Rumi. He is obsessed with the secrets of these ancient works of poetry, and his obsession spills over into his new relationship with Camilla. She is secretive about her origins and about her present life, too, often appearing unannounced, then disappearing for weeks on end. John fills the time between their frustrating liaisons with work on his thesis, but his grasp on day-to-day reality starts to slip.
Rumors of a "Shiraz Manuscript," a long-lost Sufi work smuggled out of Iran during the Revolution, take John on a series of wild goose chases, first to the Persian exile community in Los Angeles, then to Spain and India. Not even sure that such a manuscript exists, John begins a search that starts to parallel his relationship with Camilla, who may not be what she seems. In the end it is Camilla herself who supplies him with a mysterious manuscript, but its origins are as suspect as her own. As the lovers travel to Iran in search of the truth, they discover things about themselves and each other, things that lay beneath the surface all along not unlike the deeper meaning found in the deceptive simplicity of Sufi verse.
The mystery that frames the love story in <B>Abandon</B> is far more intriguing than John and Camilla's fanatical love affair, which borders at times on the ridiculous. The novel would be a stronger work if Iyer had trimmed a little of the New Age dialogue between these two neurotic lovers. But John and Camilla do manage to make the occasional acute, well-phrased observation, and revelations about Camilla that surface near the end are surprising. Iyer is an atmospheric writer, and the sheer beauty of some of his descriptive passages compensates for the more mundane moments in the narrative.
One of the arresting puzzles of the novel is the way Iyer plays with the word "abandon" which can take on many shades of meaning, both negative, in the physical sense of abandonment, and positive, in the spiritual or mystical sense. Many scenes in the book take place in abandoned spaces houses, mosques, the desert which lend an appropriate sense of unreality. In an end note, Iyer tells us he has never been to Iran, and has based his depiction on the writings of others. This fabrication is an intentional choice, because the place he is writing about is really the romantic Persia of literature, though seen through modern eyes. He has, of course, been to California (he lives there part of the year), but his portrayal of that landscape is no less mythic, shaped to suit the exigencies of his fiction.
There are a number of allusions in the book to Persian carpets, and those textile masterpieces seem an apt metaphor for Iyer's book itself. We need to step back and look at the work as a whole to see what the pattern is trying to tell us. Abandon is about the clash between spiritual and secular cultures, about the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that can occur when our individual stories are put into a greater context, about centuries-old Islamic traditions and how they can be distorted all themes that have powerful relevance these days. <I>Robert Weibezahl has worked in the book publishing industry for 20 years as a writer and publicist. He lives in Los Angeles.</I>