An Elegy of a Piece: Review of Pico Iyers’ Falling Off The Map

I saw it jammed within the middle of a stack of used books in a store somewhere in Dhaka’s Nilkhet bazaar – a store I have tried fruitlessly to relocate since. I saw the title spelled out on the spine and was fixated: Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World by Pico Iyer.

The name alone is enticing enough. It is the neatly packaged moniker which perfectly hooks the reader – in this case, me – who might be interested. I pointed at it for the boy minding the store. He labored out of his seat, and seeing what I was pointing at, said: “Do you really want to see it? Are you going to buy it? It’s really stuck in there; will be hard to get out. Why do you want it anyway?”

Getting it was worth the effort, of excavating through block stores and shacks overflowing with innumerable IELTs, SATs and GRE preparation textbooks, and then persuading the keeper to do you the favor of selling it to you. It could have easily been a vapid narrative full of clichés about bourgeois adventures and experiences in overtly-romanticized lands, but it wasn’t.  Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World is an elegiac and elegant book. It is a series of essays and travel pieces by Pico Iyer, noted travel writer and essayist for Time, about the lonely places of the world, countries cut off from the rest of the world by geography, ideology, or by their sheer weirdness. Pico Iyer, born in Oxford, grew up in California. He is a part of what he calls the global single polyglot multiculture or mutt-culture; a sophisticated traveler, well aware of both the perils of being a part of the complicated and exploitative nature of the global order and the need for development and progress in most of the Third World. And it is this keen understanding that is the cornerstone of the insights he presents in this book.

But despite the essential changes the places have gone through, travel to those places in the book was also in large part an existential contemplation. Falling Off the Map isabout the idea of the lonely places for travelers, manifested – for Iyer – by those countries at undefinedthose points in time. The prose is eloquent and replete with the recondite literary and polyglot multicultural references, many of which did largely go over my head. However, the ones I did get added significantly to the meanings of what Iyer was saying. Yet no matter what the comprehensibility of references might be they do not detract from enjoying most of the humor and lucid elegance with which Iyer describes the places. It is about the man’s telling and representation of the place; it is about the wonder and humor he shows them to possess.   

Pico Iyer in Telluride, Colo., in September 2019.Credit…Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

Falling Off the Map contains pieces on North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, Vietnam, Paraguay, and Australia, places that Iyer felt did not “fit in”, “[had] no seat at our international dinner tables” were not “on international wavelengths.” Published in 1993 by Vintage Departures, Falling of the Map can seem quite dated if taken literarily. It has been over fifteen years since it was first published, and situations in the places in questions have changed significantly. Hyperinflation or “la situacion” in Argentina has been largely dealt with; Vietnam is no longer a dragon on the cusp but the latest Asian tiger economy, and Iceland is so connected to the global structures of order that it was the first nation to almost go bankrupt and get a bailout during the recent financial crisis.         

There are few travel-books and even fewer travel writers that both inform with regard to the phenomenon of traveling but are also so much more. Iyer is one of the few whose work goes beyond the genre and must be read as such (I googled the guy). People call him a post-modern traveler, and his observations do inform about the relation between the subject and object, the narrator and the narrator – both political and hegemonic – on the cusp of pour into and overrunning the places in the book. But the one point that stands out about the book is that Falling Off the Map is extremely funny; I kept chuckling throughout. But while the humor makes the book enjoyable, the transformations of the places being shown make the pieces elegiac – an elegy to once lonely places, which are in the process of changing and whose loneliness, its sublime metaphysics, is largely disappearing. 

This review was originally published in the Daily Star sometime around 2009

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