Ever walked into a roomful of people and, with all the available options, been attracted to the one person who is the worst choice possible? That is Iyer’s Abandon in a nutshell, albeit dressed up with Rumi, Sufi poetry and scholarship.
John Macmillan is a scholar, writing his thesis on Sufi poetry, in particular the Islamic mystic Rumi, at UC Santa Barbara. The thesis must be completed before his return to England in a few months, but the work is proceeding well for this dedicated scholar. Although he is in a relationship with a woman in London, John is caught in the web of intrigue surrounding Camilla Jensen, a young woman of contradictory traits he meets when delivering a package upon his return from India at the request of his thesis advisor.
Against his better judgment, Macmillan is attracted to Camilla’s fragile unpredictability and her mysterious employment, drawn to the glimpses of passion she sporadically exhibits. Her behavior both attracts and repels, tempting him to disengage from such confusion. But then there would be no story. The insipid Camilla is more a female example of a male-dominated culture than the author’s “New-Agey” description indicates. In fact, she is dependent, childish and singularly unattractive. This romance is hopelessly pedestrian and spoils the global impact of the novel.
Iyer writes with confidence about what he knows best: foreign countries, Islam, Rumi and the shadowy Sufis. Macmillan travels to India, Spain and Iran, where he meets with strangers and has conversations about manuscripts that may or may not be in circulation. But the conversations never evolve, only cursory remarks and mysterious phrases in an obscure code dressed in everyday pleasantries. Macmillan does Professor Sefhadi’s bidding; the professor is, after all, his mentor and necessary to the completion of the thesis. But it is unclear whether Macmillan is the professor’s pawn, Camilla’s fool or a man more comfortable with mystery than with answers.
Everything in this book is vague, indirect; conversations are purposefully ambiguous, correspondence filled with inconsistencies. In fact, Macmillan seems to thrive on misdirection. The text explains every exchange, parsing letters and paragraphs to clarify meanings. I found this style discomfiting, as though I couldn’t trust the author’s intent, for truth is an unknown quantity in this corner of academia. The relationship between Camilla and John may be, at best, a metaphor for Macmillan’s search for the essence of Sufism, the letting-go of self, “being” the experience.
To quote from common usage, unfortunately not as impressive as the ubiquitous Rumi, “Water seeks its own level.” Simple, perhaps, but in this case, appropriate. Sacrificing himself on the altar of dysfunction, Macmillan is not grasping Heaven with his new lover, rather dancing along the precipice of Hell.