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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head

Some writers have the spirit of a voyeur. Perhaps none exemplified it better than Graham Greene, the British novelist, playwright and critic, who delighted in his lifelong role of the outsider looking in. His characters, like him, are forever wrenched from their moorings, forever on the move in search of new places, themes and people. But everywhere they go, they remain strangers. In a curious case of life imitating art, we have some one like Pico Iyer, a writer and inveterate traveller, finally writing about the man who has lived inside his head, a man who has influenced Iyer’s ouvre in more ways than he can enumerate, a writer with whom he has had a relationship that is almost obsessive-compulsive. From the day Iyer first read Greene as a schoolboy in a tony British boarding school, the theme that dominated Greene’s writings – that of a the perpetual outsider – became, in a sense, his own, too; it has coloured almpst everything Iyer has written.

A regular contributor to the Time magazine as well as author of seven works of non-fiction and two novels, Iyer has travelled extensively across the world. The son of Indian academics Raghavan N. Iyer, an Oxford philosopher and Theosophist and Nandini Nanak Mehta, a religious scholar who taught at California, Iyer grew up shuttling between America and Britain. Now, married to a Japanese woman, he lives in Kyoto. Straddling cultures and civilisations, grappling with notions of self and identity, home and the world, Iyer grew up to become a global citizen. Like values and friendships, ‘home’ for him is both invisible and portable, something he carries with him like an overnight bag, as he has said in an interview. Whether consciously or unconsciously, his life resembles that of the writer who has most influenced him – Graham Greene who was as peripatetic as Iyer has been all his life.

The Man Within My Head is an extended search for similarities. Iyer goes to places that Greene went to, revisits bars, talks to barmen and bargirls, meets people who knew Greene,  in short takes a long walk down the road that Greene walked almost a half century ago. What is more, he reimagines situations, observes scenes straight out of a Greene story, even writes stories Greene might have written! Why would an established and much-feted writer such as Iyer do that? With a lesser literary talent, it might be seen as literary impersonation but not with someone as prodigiously talented and erudite as Iyer.

Possibly, the answer lies deep inside Iyer’s psyche. Greene’s stories of exploration and escape, romance and chivalry at unexpected places and with unexpected people, stories of innocence and pragmatism, faith and doubt, stories of sinners and saints find an echo in Iyer due to the peculiarities of his own upbringing and education. For both Greene and Iyer travel is a way ‘to see more clearly the questions and shadows it is easy to look past at home’.  For both, the human predicament is of abiding interest, as is the ‘possibility of kindness and honesty even in the midst of our confusions and our sins’. Both have a deep-seated, instinctive compassion for ‘wounded, lonely, seared’ mortals. In writing this book (which I must, confess, reminded me in parts of an extended ‘tutorial’, those wordy, prosy long-winded essays we aspired to write back in my days at Miranda House as  a student of literature), Iyer is on a personal odyssey. He could have written a biography if all he wanted was to write about Greene; instead, he has written, what he calls, a ‘counterbiography’. ‘I’m interested in the things that lived inside him,’ Iyer writes. ‘His terrors and obsessions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us.’ What emerges from this rambling, reflexive narrative is a realisation: ‘We run and run from who we are – this was Greene’s theme from the beginning – only to discover, of course, that that is precisely what we can never put behind us.’
(This review first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, September 2012)

Also Read:

1.      The Quiet American by Graham Greene (London, Heinemann, 1955), a British and American journalist vie for the attention of a young Vietnamese woman in war-torn Saigon.

2.      Tropical Classical: Essays From Several Directions by Pico Iyer (New York Knopf, 1997),  book reviews and essays on people and places.

3.      The Gentleman in the Parlour by Somerset Maugham (London, Random House, 1930), the master story teller who influenced both Greene and Iyer, at his best while travelling through Ceylon, Rangoon, Mandalay, Bangkok, Cambodia, Saigon, Hongkok and across the pacific.

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