Falling Off the Map

The author of VIDEO NIGHT IN KATHMANDU (1988) and THE LADY AND THE MONK (1991), Pico Iyer has made a reputation for himself as a keen observer. In FALLING OFF THE MAP, he has collected eight travel essays that show off his penchant for not following the crowds. The “road less traveled” seems to be Iyer’s motto. The places of this collection have been categorized as “lonely” because of their geographical or political isolation. Their isolation has made them “shy, defensive, curious places.” The eight countries that Iyer visited include North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, Vietnam, Paraguay, and Australia.

The author seeks out the eccentric in each of these places. In so doing, he strikes many ironic gems.

In the first travel essay, “My Holiday with Kim Il Sung,” Iyer describes in amusing detail his trip to North Korea. Very few tourists ever visit North Korea, and so it seemed the ideal choice for Iyer. Because the country exists in such a closed environment, Iyer was amused to find a large hotel for foreign visitors being constructed. The idea of foreign visitors also takes on ironic proportions in his essay on Vietnam, entitled “Yesterday Once More.” The Vietnamese government had decided to make 1990 the “Year of Tourism,” while at the same time deciding to tear down all the hotels in order to remodel them. Iyer finds ironic situations almost at every turn. It is not Iyer’s intention to take cheap shots at unusual places. The author has sympathy for the predicaments into which these countries have become boxed. That does not mean that he does not take the occasional jab on principle, but for the most part, he relishes being the keen observer who finds pleasure in the distinctiveness of the places he visits. In FALLING OFF THE MAP, Iyer has gathered a group of wonderfully funny and educational essays that any travel reader should savor.