The Heart of the Obsession

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.