February 25, 2020

Pico Iyer unravels his mind’s shadows

Pico Iyer conjures up Graham Greene in the title of his new book, “The Man Within My Head” (Knopf: $25.95), and that’s why it caught my attention. Greene is a writer
whom I have read with admiration and pleasure, over and over again, throughout my adult life. Iyer, too, sparked my interest years ago with his travel memoir, “Video Night in Kathmandu,” and I have been following (and reviewing) him ever since. 

Iyer seeks to understand and explain Greene in “The Man Within My Head,” but he has created something different — something much deeper and more resonant — than a tribute to a famous writer. Indeed, more than one man is to be found inside Iyer’s head, and the book is as much a confession by Iyer himself as it is a paean to a great British novelist whose eye and imagination were always drawn to exotic locales.

Iyer, too, practices a kind of literary globalism. His parents were distinguished Indian philosophers, and Iyer himself was born in Britain, raised in Santa Barbara, educated at English boarding schools and, later, at Oxford and Harvard, and he now lives in Japan. He has long reported from foreign datelines for Time, The New York Times and other periodicals. As we learn in “The Man Within My Head,” the restlessness that prompts and suffuses Iyer’s work is deeply imprinted.

“I always felt happy being alone, and so long as I was loose in the world, uncompanioned, I was never bored or at a loss,” he writes. “If you grow up between cultures, if you get accustomed to traveling, it’s easy to find yourself always on the outside of things, looking in.”

Like Greene’s, Iyer’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, are rooted in his travels and sojourns in distant places, and he is intrigued and provoked by the most intimate needs and demands of the people he encounters there. “Graham Greene is often taken to be the patron saint of the foreigner alone, drifting between certainties,” Iyer acknowledges. “God hovers everywhere around the scene, but usually, like many a love, He is known only by His refusal to do what we want most.”

Greene serves as an object of study and contemplation in “The Man Within My Head,” a source of inspiration and a moral touchstone for Iyer, both as a writer and as a human being. Thus, for example, when Iyer describes an ambiguous encounter with a woman in La Paz —she laughs, puts her hand on his arm, and when she smiles at him, he wonders “what she was smiling at, or for” — Iyer seeks to explain it all by reference to Greene.

“In Graham Greene books such equivocal partnerships may be all that we can hope for; in a world where there are no absolutes, a qualified friendship based on your lack of illusions in the other (and in yourself) may be the only thing you can really trust,” Iyer explains. “In life, however, I’m not sure how much anyone is really happy on such uncertain ground.”

So Iyer is a critic rather than a hagiographer when it comes to Greene, and he is measured in his praise. “He was a professional writer of fiction, yet Greene was never one to lie to himself,” Iyer writes. “That was what commanded respect even when I couldn’t give him affection; he looked unblinkingly at precisely the shadows in the self (and in the world) that most of us try to look away from, drilling, as a dentist might, into the most tender and infected spaces because that was where the trouble lay.”

Indeed, Iyer confesses that his “sense of Greene was burned to the ground” when he encountered the previously unpublished letters that the novelist had written to one of his many paramours. “The words themselves are as reckless and even generic as those of the novelist Greene, measuring out his five hundred words a day, are drily precise and melancholy,” Iyer writes. “It was like seeing the soul, intimate and beseeching, emerge from behind the personality.”

Then, too, as Iyer allows us to glimpse the inner reaches of his own soul, we come to understand that Greene is not the only ghost who haunts him. “Who are these figures who take residence inside our heads, to the point where we can hear their voices even when we’re trying to make contact with our own?” he muses, and we begin to see that a whole cast of characters, including his own father, are keeping company with Greene in Iyer’s imagination.

Iyer also allows us to see the origins and workings of the sense of irony that suffuses his own writing. For example, when Iyer visits Vietnam — the scene of Greene’s “The Quiet American,” which Iyer describes as “all but the heart of [Greene’s] doctrine and his work” — Iyer shows us the cultural victory that America managed to win even after suffering a defeat on the field of battle. For anyone who has already encountered Iyer’s travel writing, it is a signature moment.

“From underground bars, where shy Japanese couples were sipping ‘Girl Scout Cookies’ and Lynchburg Lemonades, ‘Layla’ drifted up into the tropical night, and Jefferson Airplane songs from the Woodstock era,” he writes. “The French war, the American war, the war against the Khmer Rouge had come and gone, and yet Saigon was really not so different from the place Greene had first visited in 1951.”

Inevitably, “The Man Within My Head” says more about Iyer than about Greene. To be sure, it is a lens through which we can re-examine Greene’s work, but we can apply the same lens to Iyer’s writing, as well. Thus, for example, it is Iyer’s credo, rather than Greene’s, that we are offered in a passage about the brushfires that threatened Iyer’s childhood home in the hills above Santa Barbara. “The only lesson the fire taught was that you never know what will happen next,” he writes. “[O]ur destinies can unravel even as we think we’re writing them.”

Above all, Iyer’s rich and provocative book invites us see the world in which we find ourselves today in a new and revealing light, and that’s the real measure of his accomplishment. “A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the world,” Iyer says of Greene, but he could be describing himself just as well.