The book begins:
I was standing by the window in the Plaza Hotel, looking out. Below—ten stories below—I could make out round-faced women in ponchos standing on the sidewalk of the city named for peace and renting out cellphones to passersby. At their sides, sisters (or could it be daughters?) were sitting next to mountainous piles of books, mostly advising pedestrians on how to win a million dollars. Along the flower-bordered strip of green that cuts through Bolivia’s largest metropolis, a soldier was leading his little girl by the hand, pointing out Mickey and Minnie in Santa’s sleigh.
The scene is described by synechdoche—parts that stand for the whole—as it has to be in this kind of writing. The art is in the selection of details and the way they surprise and inform us. The default associations of “Plaza Hotel” for an American reader might at first be New York, but the round-faced women in ponchos immediately establish an exotic setting. It is however a complex exoticism, in which the local and the traditional coexist with the international and the modern, generating for the observant visitor ironic incongruities of which the native inhabitants, with different priorities, are unaware. Even if one didn’t already know from the book’s jacket copy that the man within Pico Iyer’s head is Graham Greene, one might guess that he had learned from him how to evoke a foreign place. (Compare, for instance, the opening paragraph of The Heart of the Matter.) It is not, however, an influence that Iyer mentions. His acknowledged debts to Greene are more personal and fundamental.
Enervated by the high altitude, he draws the curtain on the window and sleeps for a while, waking with an irresistible urge to write, though he has come to Bolivia to take a break from writing. He writes “unstoppably…. The words came out of me as if someone (something) had a message urgently to convey.” What he writes is a sketch of a boy standing at the dormitory window of a British boarding school, watching as the “last parental car” drives away at the commencement of a new term, calculating the number of institutional weeks and days ahead, trying to “magick the numbers down,” and listening to the other boys sniffling under their covers.
The writer stares at his work,
as if it were something I’d found rather than composed. I’d been at a school akin to this thirty years before—the emotions weren’t entirely foreign to me—but why was the main character…called “Greene,” as if he had something to do with the long-dead English novelist?
Interrupted, as he ponders this question, by a waiter wordlessly bringing a tank of oxygen to the door of his room (a deft touch of local color Greene would have approved), the writer then wonders why that morning he had remembered his father “eyes alight and unfailingly magnetic,” laughing uproariously at a certain point in The Sound of Music, and himself laughing at exactly the same point in the movie forty years later. “I looked down again and saw the name in my handwriting: ‘Greene.’ The novelist had never even come to Bolivia, so far as I knew. Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?” The next section begins: “I drew back the curtains and, as the light came in, recalled that the same thing, weirdly, had happened three years before, pretty much to the day: I’d taken my mother to Easter Island,” where he wrote a story about a Catholic missionary priest that was almost parodically derivative from Graham Greene.
In these opening pages Pico Iyer establishes the basic themes of his book, and its narrative method: being in one place triggers the memory of another place and then another memory, a series of memories that he interprets through the “familiar compound ghost” (T.S. Eliot’s phrase from “Little Gidding”) of Graham Greene and his characters, as he seeks an authentic sense of his own identity. The next morning he makes an excursion to Lake Titicaca on the Bolivia–Peru border. “As the bus, groaning and faltering, began to sputter out of town, the other great presence of my life came back to me again.” This is his father, recalled making a surprise visit to his son at an Oxford college, barely giving his current girlfriend time to slither out of a back window. “As he walked into the room, my father might have been walking into his own vanished youth, twenty-six years before; he had arrived from Bombay and been given a prize room in the ancient cloisters.”
On the bus he notices a woman in her late thirties stealing glances at him, and she introduces herself as the guide he had requested. As she questions him about his life he registers her envy of his freedom and mobility. “I’d found this theme echoed in every page of Graham Greene: the foreigner, precisely by going to another country, brings a whiff of a different world into the lives of the locals he meets.” They get on well in the course of the day, to the point where she ventures to give him a shoulder massage during a boat trip on the lake. The possibility of further intimacy hovers in the air, but he has a wife in Japan, she has two children that her fee will help to feed, and the moment passes. Iyer records several such encounters in the course of his itinerant life—one young woman who caught his eye on a street in Nicaragua asked him to marry her within five minutes—and they are all connected in his mind with the figure of Phuong in Greene’s “archetypal novel,” The Quiet American.
The Man Within My Head (the title echoes that of Greene’s first novel, The Man Within) is not an easy book to categorize, or to read, because it is a memoir that deliberately renounces chronological structure, shifting abruptly from one time and place to another like a stream-of-consciousness novel. “I remember walking into a long-distance telephone parlor in the sleepy Mexican town of Mérida one hot August afternoon.” “I was in Saigon one autumn, and had just checked in to the Hotel Majestic.” “We were driving…down unpaved roads across the highlands of Ethiopia.” These are typical opening sentences of the short sections into which the chapters are divided. The globe spins back and forth dizzyingly as one reads, the episodes are rarely tied to particular dates, and they come in a seemingly random order. Facts that would help us to follow a particular story are revealed much later—or not at all. The choice of this fragmentary, allusive, jumbled narrative method is of course deliberate. One reason is stated:
Like Greene, I suspect, I’d never had much time for memoir; it was too easy to make yourself the center—even the hero—of your story and to use recollection as a way to forgive yourself for everything…to soothe the rush of often contradictory and inexplicable events in every life into a kind of pattern…and even a happy, redemptive ending.
Another, unstated reason is that the absence of chronological order foregrounds a theme: Graham Greene as guru, guide, and father-substitute in the writer’s quest for self-understanding.
One has however a natural tendency to make sense of individual lives in historical terms, and I found myself, as I read, mentally constructing the outline of a conventional biography from the sparse and erratically supplied information about Pico Iyer and his family, supplemented by occasional recourse to the Internet. He was born in 1957, the only child of two Indian scholars, the philosopher and theosophist Raghavan N. Iyer and comparative religionist Nandini Nanak Mehta, two years after his father arrived in Oxford on a scholarship, and became in due course a fellow of St. Anthony’s College. When Pico (named after an Italian Neoplatonist) was eight, and attending the famous Dragon prep school in Oxford, his father accepted a post at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and bought a house in the foothills way out of town. For Raghavan, it was a good move. He was a charismatic teacher and thinker whose mixture of political radicalism and Oriental mysticism made him a campus star in the ideological climate of the Sixties.
The young boy, however, who had always thought of himself as English, felt uprooted and alienated. Every morning a bus made an hour-long circuit around the canyons before depositing him at a school where his abilities placed him among students who were two years older and had very different interests. He calculated that because of the strength of the dollar against the pound, he could fly back and forth to England three times a year and be a boarder at the Dragon School for less than the cost of his school bus fare. Improbable as that sounds, his parents agreed to let him go.
The mature Pico’s comment, “a curious decision, perhaps, for a boy of nine,” seems a monumental understatement. It invites interpretation as the son’s rejection of the father’s dominating presence, and a determination to succeed on his own terms. In retrospect we understand why, with no logical connection, a memory of the father follows quickly on the vignette of the schoolboy called Greene in the opening pages, and that the fictional boy’s feeling of desertion at school puzzled the writer because it had no equivalent in his own experience—he chose that kind of education and flourished on it.
From the Dragon he won a scholarship to Eton, the most famous of English public schools (described but not named in the book), and from there another scholarship to Oxford, and then another to Harvard, where he taught for a couple of years before joining Time magazine in 1982 and becoming a successful, much-traveled journalist and essayist, and in the last decade the author of several books, one of them entitled The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. He seems to refer to it when he recalls: “In Toronto, one hot summer…I…spoke about the new possibilities of our global order, and the way it allowed for multiple homes and multiple selves.”
From an early age, then, Pico Iyer shared with Graham Greene a low opinion of home and an addiction to travel. But he had a home in California to which he returned regularly as a student, and this cultural commuting felt like “moving through some allegory between a City of Hope, where history has been abolished, and a City of History, where hope can be slipped in only as contraband.” This eloquent image explains why The Quiet American was a key book for him: its narrator is an “Unquiet Englishman,” a cynical, world-weary journalist in Vietnam who befriends, opposes, and finally defeats, in both love and war, the idealistic but dangerously blinkered Yank, and is left burdened with guilt, “wishing there was someone to whom I could say I was sorry.”
Privileging The Quiet American produces a somewhat distorted version of Greene’s oeuvre, making the later fiction seem more representative, and of higher quality, than it actually was, and leading to some dubious generalizations like “He could never quite bring himself to believe in God.” The man who wrote The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair surely believed in God in any ordinary sense of those words, and the change in the novels from The Quiet American onward to a skeptical, doubting, “implied author” makes that all the more obvious.
Iyer was never a believer, but he became increasingly interested in religion. He writes a book about the Dalai Lama, and a novel about Islam. He goes to stay in a Catholic monastery in California, and almost at once begins to write as he did in the hotel room in La Paz: “Words poured out of me, in spite of me, pages of them…. Words of radiance and affirmation that might have come from some unfallen self inside me that I’d all but forgotten.” These moments—the re are several of them in the book—when the writer describes composition as a spontaneous event scarcely under conscious control are reminiscent of descriptions of conversion and mystical rapture in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and they invariably have some association with Greene.
The earliest, seminal one seems to have happened in the late 1980s. Bored in Bhutan one afternoon, on a travel journalism assignment, Iyer begins to read a copy of The Comedians he brought with him, at first idly and then, as light fades outside his hotel room, with increasing absorption. “Something strange began to happen. I felt as if I was on the inside of the book, a spotlight trained on something deep inside me.” Just at that moment the real lights go out because of a power cut. He turns on the two-bar gas fire and continues to read, crouched on the floor, by its orange glow, and when he has finished the book he feels a compulsion to write a response to its author on sheets of the hotel notepaper. “Out it all came, like a confession and an essay all at once: everything the novel had made me feel as it pinned me against the wall and asked the cost of watching from the sidelines.”
It’s a pity the sequence ends anticlimactically with those two clichés, because it describes a crucial event, a kind of conversion. Next day he mailed the letter to Graham Greene, and returned to the “usual dinners and distractions” of his social life. “But something in me had turned, and I realized that wit or clever observation would never be enough.”
He knew Greene’s address in Antibes by heart although he had never written to the novelist before, or tried to visit him there. He had read too many reports by others who had done so, and had come away baffled by the affable but inscrutable persona Greene presented to them, to risk a disillusioning encounter with his hero. But a few months after sending his letter, having received no reply, he wrote another, offering to write a profile of Greene in the unlikely event that “he wanted to explain himself to Time magazine.” Greene replied courteously that “if any letter could make him succumb…, it would be mine. But time was short now, and he had much to do.” A year and a half later, the novelist was dead. One can work out that it was in these years—late 1980s, early 1990s—that Iyer met his wife Hiroko, saw his family house in California burned down by terrifying brush fires, and “decided to make my sense of belonging truly internal and go to the most clarifying society I knew, Japan, to live in a two-room flat with little on its shelves but a worn copy of The Quiet American.” It sounds like an ending—this quasi-monastic withdrawal into a simple, austere way of life in provincial Japan, with The Quiet American as secular scripture—but that’s an illusion created by the absence of dates, for Iyer continued to travel widely and to interrogate himself.
“As I went back and forth, in my life and then my head,” he observes, “I came to see how much it was a story, in the end, of fathers and sons.” The boy Greene was unhappy at Berkhamstead School because his father was its headmaster, making him the target of suspicion and bullying by the other pupils—unhappy enough to run away and sleep rough on the local common for several days, a microcosm of his future life. Young Pico was happy at the Dragon School but had chosen it to get away from his father’s dominating, extrovert personality, and in later life adopted Greene as his spiritual father: “He offered me a way of looking at things, and the way one looked became a kind of theology.”
The publication of the second volume of Norman Sherry’s authorized biography in 1994 prompted Iyer to make Greene the subject of one of his Time essays. Shortly afterward he picked up a recorded phone message from his father that seemed to be about the article but dissolved into helpless sobbing. “Something had obviously touched him, or devastated him in the Greenian theme of being unable to look anywhere but to oneself for blame.” When they next met Pico thought he saw the pain of this realization in his father’s eyes, but no explanation or reconciliation took place before Raghavan died a few weeks later after a short illness.
“You really want to spend all this time with Graham Greene?” Hiroko asks her husband. Her puzzlement is understandable, and will be felt to some degree by many readers of this book. Most of us have felt at different times of our lives a special kinship with a writer, and interpreted our lives in the light of his or her imagination, but seldom for so long, or so obsessively, as Pico Iyer. His excitement at finding some coincidental connection between his life and Greene’s—for instance, reading the epigraph to Greene’s Monsignor Quixote shortly after the Dalai Lama quoted the same lines from Hamlet in conversation with him, or when he “shuddered” at discovering that his father’s hero Gandhi was born on the same day, thirty-five years earlier, as Greene—can seem excessive, almost superstitious.
Nevertheless he has written a courageous, intriguing book, perhaps better described generically not as a memoir but a confession, of someone whose education and profession made him a privileged citizen of the whole modern world, but who found globalization spiritually unsatisfying. If his work seems obsessive, Pico Iyer could cite in self-defense Greene’s observation, in his essay on Walter de la Mare: “Every creative writer worth our consideration…is a victim: a man given over to an obsession.” But one can’t help hoping he has got Graham Greene out of his system with this book, and will produce more writing like the episode near the end, vividly describing an alarming car accident and its aftermath in a remote part of Bolivia, which has no reference to the English writer, and owes nothing to him—except perhaps lessons in storytelling.