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Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports…

Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East (1988)

by Pico Iyer

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Iyer is one of the best travel writers. His accounts tend to be quirky and personal. This isn't a book you would read to figure out what to do in Kathmandu, for instance. It is, rather, a book that gives you at least a little insight into the cultures the author experiences. And mostly, it is just very entertaining. ( )
  datrappert | Oct 22, 2016 |
Iyer in his introduction tells us this is “less like a conventional travel diary than a series of essays” of a “casual traveler’s casual observations” of the Asia he saw “over the course of two years... [spending] a total of seven months crisscrossing the continent.” Each chapter covers his thoughts about one country: Bail (Indonesia), Tibet, Nepal, China, Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, Japan. Most of the essays have an overarching theme through which he looked at the country. Bali as paradise lost, Nepal as Hippie Magic Bus Tour, India’s Bollywood, Thailand its skin trade, Japan and its passion for baseball. He admitted he had never formally studied Asian affairs and didn't know any of the languages of the countries he visited, but he is well-traveled and well-informed. At the time of his travels he was a writer on world affairs for Time magazine and had written for the Times Literary Supplement, Partisan Review and the Village Voice.

The book struck me as rather dated at times, or at least amusingly of its time, the essays mostly being about travels around 1985. A generation has passed since Iyer traveled through these countries. Iyer at first seemed obsessed with this idea of cultural imperialism, hitting that theme continually and calling tourists “lay colonialists” despite showing that those aspects of Western pop culture and ideas are things that Asians adopt--and adapt--for themselves. Just as Westerners often do the same (only to be labeled “cultural vultures” by Iyer.) He seemed oblivious to the ironies of a British-born man of Indian extraction, Oxford and Harvard educated, who called America home ranting about how cultural exchange “corrupts” the “purity” of Asian cultures--while himself as a visitor doing his part to carry the contagion. His very name is a combination of the Buddha’s name and that of an Italian philosopher. He called Japan his “ideal” and he currently lives there with his Japanese wife. So he’s a man who himself mixes cultures, yet seemed often to decry that, or at least be deeply ambivalent. He also sometimes struck me as naive and condescending. I recently read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and though I had my issues and poked some fun at it in my review, I thought Gilbert had a more balanced view of Bali, which Iyer presented as this paradise without crime and a culture of harmony. Gilbert rather than a few weeks spent months there, and she didn’t spend time as a tourist in the usual expat haunts, but actually interacted with ordinary Balinese. The people weren’t museum artifacts to her that need to be preserved under glass.

Yet despite my criticism I don’t regret my time spent reading Iyer. He caught Asia at an interesting time. For instance traveling through China right post-Mao, experiencing the maddening house-of-mirrors communist bureaucracy and the vibrancy of the emerging market economy, Hong Kong while still a Crown colony and the Philippines as “People Power” was ushering the Marcos regime out. He’s erudite, often lyrical, witty and at times funny, and, on occasion heart-breaking. His essay on the Philippines and its crushing poverty comes to mind: sad and surreal. His multinational perspective does make him often insightful about the cross-cultural currents he witnessed. And over the course of his book, and in his epilogue and 2000 afterword, he did seem more nuanced and less judgmental about the exchanges between East and West. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Apr 7, 2013 |
Iyer traveled all over Asia over a number of years and published this book in 1988. Each chapter considers one country. After a while, though, they all ran together, because the picture he paints is almost unrelentingly depressing--in country after country, the people are poor, oppressed, and often forced to turn to prostitution or begging, even though they remain cheerful and optimistic. The chapters on India and Japan are exceptions. The chapter on India focuses on Bollywood and is not really a travelogue. The chapter on Japan is mainly about baseball, and although it, in a way, also presents a very depressing picture (of a lack of genuineness and an over-emphasis on conformity), poverty and prostitution are not part of the scene. Iyer's overall theme is the interaction between East and West, but what is most striking is the desparate poverty. Because the book was written in 1988, it would be interesting to read his more recent impressions of these countries. In some, like Burma, I don't think the situation has changed much. ( )
  carlym | Sep 6, 2011 |
Mohawk haircuts in Bali. Yuppies in Hong Kong. In Bombay, not one but five Rambo rip-offs, complete with music and dancing. And in the new People's Republic of China, a restaurant that serves dishes called "Yes, Sir, Cheese My Baby," "A Legitimate Beef," and "Ike and Tuna Turner." These are some of the images -- comical, poignant, and unsettling -- that Pico Iyer brings back from the Far East in this brilliant book of travel reportage. (Amazon)
1 vote cavrak | Nov 3, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679722165, Paperback)

Only in India would the American film Rambo be remade with the title role played by a woman--in a sari, no less! Only in Hong Kong would a man at a cocktail party pick up a woman with the line "What do you think of the dollar?" And only in Video Night in Kathmandu will you find detailed, unsettling portraits of a Far East in flux as experienced by Pico Iyer, a travel writer beyond compare. Tibet, China, India, and Thailand--these are among the objects of Iyer's wanderlust, the subjects of 11 essays chronicling his travels. In India, he explores the lucrative Bombay film business: "The process of turning an American movie into an Indian one was not very difficult ... but it did require a few changes.... the Indian hero had to be domesticated, supplied with a father, a mother, and a clutch of family complications." As one film director told him, " ... for example, Rambo must be given a sister who was raped." In Bangkok he finds the sex trade is well nigh impossible to avoid: " ... by the time a third official government tout approached me with the novel invitation: 'My friend. You no like birdwatching?' I was inclined to suspect that ornithology was not among his interests."

Pico Iyer is more than just a travel writer. For four years, he wrote about world affairs for Time, and he brings to these brilliant, comical, and poignant essays his extensive knowledge of politics and culture as well as a journalist's eye for the telling details. Video Night in Kathmandu provides both a stark, unsettling view of modern Asia and an exploration of the ambivalent attitudes Asians hold toward the West.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:17 -0400)

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"Mohawk hair-cuts in Bali, yuppies in Hong Kong and Rambo rip-offs in the movie houses of Bombay are just a few of the jarring images that Iyer brings back from the Far East"--Provided by publisher.

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