Macmillan is an Englishman, a graduate student, researching Sufi poetry at the University in Santa Barbara. He moves through the strange world of graduate students, Sufi scholars, and displaced Iranians in Los Angeles, himself a displaced person -- not quite a Californian, but an Englishman away from home, in search of a new life.
"He'd come all the way here to live differently: but what use was any of it if he changed only his circumstance, not his eyes?"
Will Camilla teach him to see things differently? As one of the visiting lecturers said, "We are no greater than the height of our perceptions."
Macmillan travels to Syria, India and Iran in search of an elusive manuscript by the 13th century poet, Rumi. Through Macmillan's research we are introduced to Rumi and Sufi mysticism, a fascinating world of mystic poetry and mysterious philosophy. "Sufis are closer in spirit to the mystics of other traditions than to the mainstream of Islam. That is one of the things that make them seem so subversive."
For the Sufi, God is everywhere, and the struggle or "jihad" to find him is internal. It is not the holy war waged by fundamentalists, but a war with oneself, to suppress the "infidel within."
The Sufi goal is to find the hidden self, to find Truth, or the light of truth, if you will.
Macmillan's professor, an Iranian exile, tells him, "Our mission is to smuggle a little of the Sufi light into the smog of California." A little bit of irony when you consider the horrendous pollution in Tehran.
Macmillan's dream, like every other scholar's, is to find something new to say about a subject that has been studied by many others. His fear, also shared by his colleagues, is that someone else will come up with something new first.
The world of academia never sounded so mysterious or so fraught with danger. Professors clam up when faced with Macmillan's inquiries, they tiptoe around the issue, whisper names and send him on wild-goose chases. Whether in Damascus or Granada, an aura of mystery and danger surrounds Macmillan as he attempts to contact scholars in his pursuit of the elusive manuscript.
Together with Macmillan, the reader wanders through the chapters as through dense fog, experiencing the same bewilderment and confusion, wondering where all this is leading. I was tempted to put the book down several times, but Iyer's terse prose kept pulling me back.
Camilla, a strange young woman, riddled by doubt and insecurity, moves in and out of Macmillan's life, awakening in him equal parts of passion, tenderness and irritation.
"I still wake up, several times a week, and tell myself it can't be true. That anyone who's normal -- kind of -- with a normal life, could have any time for me. And sometimes I don't wake up at all, and then it's even better."
Why does this intelligent, educated, beautiful young woman feel so worthless, so insecure? That is part of the mystery that Macmillan unravels by the end of the novel, together with the mystery of the elusive manuscript.
Through Macmillan's travels and research, we are given a glimpse at not only an ancient Persian tradition, but also the actual clash of cultures between Islam and the West. As Iyer puts it, "America was in search of new enemies now that the Cold War was over, and how Jihad vs. McWorld was arguing that Islam would be the great enemy of the new postmodern order."
The title, "Abandon," refers not only to the transport and self-forgetfulness of the mystic, religious abandon as one going into a trance, but also to the more human abandon of desertion, and of being abandoned.
It happens to be Macmillan's title for his essay on Rumi and John of the Cross, "(Abandon: East and West)". He quotes Henry David Thoreau:
"Not by constraint or severity should you have access to true worth, but by abandonment."
Human abandonment seems to be Camilla's great fear, and her usual experience with men. Her low self-esteem becomes quite irritating at times, not only to Macmillan but to the reader as well. She keeps bursting into tears, trying his patience as well as ours.
One wants to shake her and remind her that she can have a life without a man for support, emotional or otherwise.
Iyer's examination of border crossing and cultural plurality comes from personal experience. Of Hindu origin and educated in England, he divides his time between California and Japan. His forays into the burned-out mountains above the sun-bleached beaches of California are as disconcerting as his encounter with a young Muslim student in Qom or the masked Carnavale reveler in Venice. As in his collection of essays, "Tropical Classical," he alters the way we perceive both familiar and unfamiliar surroundings, and offers us a journey into the self as well.
Iyer is also the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling Off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "The Global Soul."
("Abandon," by Pico Iyer, Knopf, 354 pages, $24.00.)