Book: Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer

Interesting, but mostly for historical value

Pico Iyer
Video Night in Kathmandu and other Reports from the Not-So-Far East
Vintage Departures, 1989
ISBN: 0-679-72216-5
374 pages

Some books, though no fault of their own, spend kind of a long time on my un-read shelf. This case is an extreme one. I think that I bought Video Night in Kathmandu about 15 years ago. But it seems still to be in print. The book is the story of some trips that the author, Pico Iyer, made in Asia in the early- to mid-1980s. Specifically, there are chapters on Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, The Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan.

Mr Iyer is of Indian descent. He was born in England, lived as a youth for some time in California, and was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. He's a fine choice as a cross-cultural guide.

The time he's writing about is really kind of a while ago. The movie Rambo was new to Asia then. On his first visit to Hong Kong, it was not just still under British rule, it wasn't entirely clear that it would revert to Chinese rule. Indira Ghandi had only recently been assassinated. East Germany still existed. On his first visit to The Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was still in power. The New York disco Studio 54 was still a cultural touchstone. On his first visit, AIDS had yet to affect the sex trade in Bangkok.

Though the book is looking at a present that's pretty long gone, that's not necessarily a disadvantage. The book has a historical quality now that it didn't have two decades ago. Indeed, it has a rather fascinating historical quality. The book is really about globalization and Western and especially American cultural hegemony but it was written at a time when those ideas were hardly on anyone's agenda. It's interesting to see some early stages of things that we now consider routine.

My Iyer has a sharp eye for detail, and the book is full of interesting observations. He notices nascent capitalism in China. He visits Shenzen there, where he's told that it was recently a sleepy fishing village with a population of only 20,000 but that its population had grown to 16 times that. According to Shenzen's Wikipedia entry, its population is now 25 times larger still.

In India, he notices some of the misguided economic policies that kept that country so poor for so long. He finds Bali innocent and freewheeling but perhaps subject to having that innocence taken away. He doesn't worry much that Nepal will be wrecked by tourists. Instead, alas, it was wrecked by a civil war that has only recently ended. And the communists in the interim government continue to cause problems. And Mr Iyer is not just a disinterested observer. Many of the stories he tells are poignant as well as interesting.

That said, the book does have flaws. It's longer than it needs to be. Mr Iyer hadn't yet learned to tell only what's necessary to get his point across. For all the exotic places he goes to, he doesn't manage to convey much of their atmosphere. While he has considerable worldliness and education, it's not always worn lightly. And some of his metaphors, including some extended ones, aren't really especially helpful. Still, the book is an interesting look at some places at an interesting juncture in their history.

Posted: Tue - January 1, 2008 at 05:51 PM   Main   Category: