“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves.” This is the opening sentence of a marvelous essay by Pico Iyer called “Why We Travel,” and there is no pithier way to describe what Iyer has spent most of his life doing. Luckily for us, Iyer has also spent much of that time writing about what he has seen and experienced, and so far has written more than a dozen books and novels and hundreds of articles, and has starred in several TED Talks that bear repeat watching.

His latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, is a distillation of sorts of what he has learned all these years, seen through the prism of what defines paradise for us and others. (Spoiler alert: it is not The White Lotus.) Iyer is the loveliest of writers, a person whose prose is in harmony with the man himself: sharp-minded, witty, benevolent, wise, and never for a second ponderous or spiritually meretricious. To read Iyer, initially, is to entertain ourselves, and then, well, the rest is up to you.

JIM KELLY: In your new book, you wonder what kind of paradise can be found today in this world of unending conflict, so you head off to Iran, whose Persian traditions have done so much to shape the idea of paradise both in this life and after. Contradiction greets you everywhere, including how both modern and deeply religious the same person can be and how so many Iranians find ways to work around the government’s strictures, “to know whether to surge forward or hold back,” as one guide said, supposedly talking about the traffic but alluding to so much more.

Given your experiences there, is there anything about the current protests in Iran, the crackdown, and then the supposed disbanding of the Islamic religious police that surprises you?

PICO IYER: I don’t think so. As you know, Iran is a country of layers, where even the Supreme Leader, as a local tells me early in my book, may not know what’s going on, let alone how to control the constant changes. Nowhere I’ve been is more oblique, and part of what so fascinates me about the place is, as you say, how much movement there is, on both sides, and yet how little generally changes in the process. Like a chess game in which both sides use only knights, which makes checkmate very difficult!

More broadly, though, my writing always tries to be anti-topical and to catch something in the character of a place that remains constant through all the daily convulsions and twitches. The names change, but there’s so much in Iran—or Cuba—that seems to be the same before each revolution and after. Regardless of how the current drama plays out, I’m guessing there’ll be whispers and intrigue and uncertainty in every corner of Iran a year—or even a decade—from now.

J.K.: You salt your book with observations about your own life, born in Britain of Indian parents, attending Eton College, whose protocols could be as restrictive as any found in Iran, and then shuttling for many years between England and California, where your parents moved when you were seven. How much has this shaped your admirable inability to stay in one place for very long? Or are you in some sense searching for home?

P.I.: You’re the rare soul kind enough to call my inability to settle “admirable”! I would say that growing up on planes helped me see everywhere as home, to some degree, even though everywhere (even England or California or India) would always be somewhat foreign (and therefore interesting). And, really, that commute between a very tradition-bound 15th-century English school and California in the Summer of Love was a training in trying to balance the skepticism I was mastering in my classrooms with the hopefulness that the Far West so cheerfully encourages.

In truth, I feel I have found a perfect home in Japan, where I’ve based myself for 35 years now. I’ll never be Japanese, or wear Japanese clothes, or eat much Japanese food, but somehow the place agrees with me and feels wonderfully familiar and unfathomable at the same time. A bit like an exotic version of the England where I grew up, but one that I’ll never get to the bottom of.

The names change, but there’s so much in Iran—or Cuba—that seems to be the same before each revolution and after.

J.K.: You find great hope visiting Belfast and discovering how much of its grimy streetscape is mentioned in the songs of Van Morrison, who grew up there and is a favorite of yours. “He’d made of the unpromising landscape a world as promising as Avalon.” You also quote another local, Seamus Heaney, who famously wrote when Nelson Mandela was released from jail that “once in a lifetime … hope and history rhyme.” Would it be fair to say that one definition of paradise is to believe, no matter the evidence, that life can someday be better?

P.I.: Yes. Though to me, perhaps, the best definition would be that paradise can be found right here, right now, even in the midst of all our challenges and imperfections. Much as Van Morrison, in a very bleak neighborhood, during the Troubles, somehow found some vision of Arcadia that he passes on to the rest of us through his soaring music.

I wrote this book during the pandemic, when we were all more aware than ever of living in a world of uncertainty. Nobody knew what would happen next week, or even tonight. And that really brought home to me that, if this were my home, I would have to find my paradise right here—not wish that things be different or better, but find my contentment in the midst of lockdown and not knowing what the next day would bring.

So Van Morrison’s example reminded me that one could find transport even in the grimmest conditions. And Seamus Heaney, that, for all the scars and sorrows history brings, life can constantly surprise us. And a life without hope is no life at all.

To me, perhaps, the best definition would be that paradise can be found right here, right now, even in the midst of all our challenges and imperfections.

J.K.: You have known the Dalai Lama for decades, and marvel at how a man who has suffered so much can be so ready to smile or laugh. To find fulfillment, which I suppose can be another definition of paradise, you should not sit in isolation on a mountaintop but be engaged in the world around you and serve where you are needed. This seems to be the opposite of what so many others espouse as the key to happiness, which is to tend to your own inner life above all else. What is wrong with wanting to shut yourself off from the sufferings of the world?

P.I.: I’m probably someone who’s much too prone to shut myself off from the sufferings of the world here in my ostrich hole in suburban Japan. But the Dalai Lama, like his Catholic brothers, would say that the only point of tending to your inner life is so that you have more to give to the external world.

I get to travel with the Tibetan leader every minute of every working day when he comes to Japan—as he did 10 times in recent years—and what strikes me is that he doesn’t take a single break between the time he emerges from his hotel room, at 8:30 every morning, and the time he returns, at 4:30. He gives all his attention to every five-year-old who approaches him in the hotel lobby, and never asks for even 10 minutes alone. I’m exhausted just from watching him go through his day—and I’m 22 years younger than he is.

Iyer with the Dalai Lama, whom the writer travels with when the religious leader visits Japan.

But then I recall that, while I’ve been enjoying my beauty sleep and scarfing down a huge breakfast at the buffet table, he’s woken up every morning at 3:30 to engage in four hours of meditation. He listens to the BBC World Service News as he’s meditating, but, still, he’s cultivating his inner life so that he can be focused, attentive, and generous once he comes out of that room.

I always remember the German mystic Meister Eckhart saying that so long as the inner work is strong, the outer can take care of itself. But the inner is only a means to an end. And I really like your definition of paradise as something akin to fulfillment.

J.K.: To accept the inevitability of death someday is the surest way to be happy today. That seems to be the lesson from your visit to Varanasi, the holy city in India and where many people stage funeral rites. Fair enough?

P.I.: Exactly! I think I say, in the previous chapter, that the fact that nothing lasts is the reason everything matters. Which I think is a lesson that came home to many of us during the pandemic: we couldn’t count on anything, which moved some of us to hold on to and cherish our friends, our family, our gardens, our passions as never before.

What really strikes me about Varanasi—you’ve probably been there—is that the City of Death is a city of joy. Everywhere, fires are burning, to reduce corpses to ash; dead bodies are floating past on the holy river; and people are gulping down water that the W.H.O. has deemed nearly 3,000 times beyond the maximal amount of bacteria safe for consumption. Even I, of Indian descent, am startled and freaked out by the place.

Yet the people all around are giving thanks, beaming, absolutely delighted to be able to consign their loved ones to the water or the flames. Which humbles me. The lesson of the pandemic for me was “Never take anything for granted!”

J.K.: No matter where you travel, no matter how remote the locale or how great the deprivation, you always seem to find a sweet moment or a comically absurd encounter or at least something redeeming. But surely there must be some place you have been that you never, ever want to visit again. And please don’t say Manhattan.

P.I.: Don’t worry, Jim; I have only the brightest memories of Manhattan! And I probably shouldn’t mention the place that I really am glad not to see again, lest someone from Atlanta is reading this issue of AIR MAIL.

I have been in places where I found there was seemingly nothing to do: Brunei, for one. But then even turning on the TV and watching Full House, there became something interesting and different. And I did have some really harrowing experiences driving across Yemen at dead of night once, surrounded by kids brandishing assault weapons. But when, five weeks after I left, those planes flew into the World Trade Center, I was really glad that I could picture the voices, faces, and streets of Yemen (site of a terrorist attack shortly before I visited the ancestral village of Osama bin Laden).

The fact that nothing lasts is the reason everything matters.

J.K.: You clearly admire many writers, from Thoreau to Merton to Elizabeth Strout, whose latest book you reviewed for AIR MAIL. Are there two or three writers whose work shaped you as a young man, and though calling someone a “travel writer” seems limiting and lazy, are there writers who have journeyed the world and shared their observations that you especially admire?

P.I.: I probably began to answer your question by writing a whole book on Graham Greene. Nobody I know traveled from Cuba to South Africa and Haiti to Vietnam with a sense of conscience (and mischief) more wide awake and a heart as well as a mind on higher alert. “Hate is just a failure of imagination,” as he wrote, and the whiskey priest who does everything wrong somehow, in a moment of crisis, rises to a kindness that a cardinal might envy.

I grew up in schools and an environment that felt very close to Greene’s, and I’ve always been inspired by him, his literary godfather William Somerset Maugham, and the writer Harold Bloom called his “haunted disciple,” John le Carré.

If you want to know how to get deeply into a foreign country—or what to get out of it—I can’t think of better guides than le Carré or, say, D. H. Lawrence.

J.K.: You dedicate your book to your mother, who died last year at age 90. She sometimes traveled with you, including to Cambodia, Syria, and even Easter Island. Clearly a woman of adventure! And yet she treasured her longtime home in the mountains above Santa Barbara, which was destroyed by wildfires in 1990. How did she cope with that loss, and what was her influence on you as her only child?

P.I.: She did have a great love of travel, which she’d inherited from her father, who traveled the world in the early years of the 20th century, when it wasn’t so easy. So when she became a widow, in 1995, I suggested to her, as her only child, that every Christmas we go somewhere she’d longed to see when she was a little girl. And she chose, indeed, first Angkor, then Easter Island, then Syria and Jordan.

Later, as a cruise-ship skeptic, I made the fatal mistake of actually taking her on a cruise (through Alaska), and we had such a good time that I started taking her to Israel and Estonia and St. Petersburg on ships, even in her 80s. A good way of sharing an adventure and also of freeing ourselves from the sitcom roles we’d otherwise occupy at home.

As it happened, my mother was rushed into a hospital 20 hours after lockdown was declared in California, in March 2020. After she came out, I flew back to be with her, and through most of the pandemic my wife and I were with her as she went through her final months, including a fun-filled 90th birthday, just before her death, in July of 2021.

That, too, really shaped this book I was writing in her house, and it made me think that the only paradise I could trust was one that could take in even death. Viruses, like forest fires, remind us of how little we can control. But they also, for me, recall how much there is to be grateful for, even in the absence of control.

Pico Iyer is a Columnist for AIR MAIL. His new book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, will be published by Riverhead on January 10

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL