The cover of Pico Iyer’s Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells is adorned with a spray of spring blossoms. Pretty white flowers, picture postcard perfect: incongruous, at first glance, with even the very title of the book. These flowers belong in spring, not in autumn. But pay closer attention, and you see that the flowers are falling, shedding petals as they drift down. Dying already, the invisible parent tree above them already moving closer to the next season.
Autumn Light is a memoir that spans the season it is named for. Beginning just before the leaves start to change colour and ending in winter, this book only occasionally depicts the glorious colours of a Japanese autumn. More, it focuses on the deeper meaning of autumn—the passing of time, the inevitable approach of the end—and what it means not just to the Japanese, but to all people, to their relationships, to society and community.
In the process, Iyer touches on many aspects of his own life and those around him. His recently dead father-in-law, to whom the World War II, in which he fought, is still vividly alive in the spirits of the men he saw dead—and in the devastation that greeted him on his return to his hometown, Hiroshima. Iyer’s mother-in-law, her mind ‘broken’, finding it increasingly difficult to remember that her husband is dead. The septuagenarians and octogenarians form most of the ping-pong club Iyer has been part of for the past nine years. Iyer’s own wife, who has, in the face of much censure, left one marriage behind. Her daughter, waiting for the boyfriend who even she knows will perhaps never return.
Interwoven into these everyday, sometimes downright mundane, routines of life, is a very vivid, very intriguing image of Japan and Japanese society. Sometimes, occasionally, it reads a little like the travelogues Pico Iyer is so known for: the descriptions of the maples, aflame with fall foliage. The cars lined up while tourists throng by the thousands to view the leaves. The shrines, the stone lanterns, the persimmons.
More often, though, this is a poignant and thought-provoking look at just how ephemeral life is. It is a point that is put forward again and again, in different ways, some so subtle that they might just pass by without being noticed. The Dalai Lama’s consoling of the people who lost their homes and families at Ishinomaki, months after a tsunami devastated the area. The cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, who dwelt repeatedly on the themes of farewells, families separating and breaking up, drifting their own way. Real life, with old people being left to the care of nursing homes while their offspring struggle with their own lives. Death, quietly and inexorably going its way, claiming its own.
Despite that, though, Autumn Light is never a morbid, pessimistic book. On the contrary, its core theme is about accepting that everything is only transitory. As the good passes, so shall the bad—and no matter how much one may want to halt time, to stop the year at spring or never grow old, one cannot. Time will pass. To accept that gracefully and to make the most of it is to live with dignity.
At one point, fairly early in Autumn Light, Iyer writes: ‘We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty… Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.’A wise, touching book that goes a long way in reinforcing that idea.