The Man Within My Head By Pico Iyer, Hamish Hamilton, Rs 499
The book opens with Pico Iyer scribbling down words in a hotel room in La Paz, a city awash with rain and shafts of light that had broken through the clouds. The story he was penning was about a boy at his school window staring at a car carrying his parents away. Iyer had named the main character “Greene”. We are told of another occasion, this time on the Easter Island, when Iyer had written about a renegade priest, a young girl and a tropical lifestyle — a story that his mother said resembled one of Graham Greene’s novels (The Power and the Glory). This book is thus an exploration of Iyer’s deep engagement with the English novelist he discovered at school. But it isn’t a biographical account of Greene’s life and works. Through an analysis of his obsession with Greene —‘the man within his head’ — Iyer attempts to understand not just himself but also such spectral presences as faith and his dead father that crowd his inner life.
Iyer’s fixation with Greene was strengthened by happy coincidences and shared experiences and interests. Greene had lived for a short while next to the road where Iyer grew up (Woodstock Road, Oxford). Greene, like Iyer, had attended a boarding school. The experience, Iyer notes wryly, had left Greene wary of authority and with an urgency to distance himself from both sides of the fence. Like Greene — whose works are often exacting accounts of foreigners visiting the margins of the globe (“Havana, Saigon, the Belgian Congo, West Africa”) — Iyer, whose childhood was spent traversing two different cultures, is interested in the outsider inhabiting “shabby, forgotten” places (Falling off the map is a delightful account of some of the loneliest corners of the world).
Given the common traits, Iyer’s anxiety to appropriate Greene may come as a surprise. But this anxiety can be attributed to the presence of contenders, many of whom are writers, including one whose protagonist becomes Graham Greene in a novel. But Iyer’s intimate knowledge of Greene is perhaps enough to stifle such competition. He sees through Greene’s subterfuge — the way Greene created and slipped in and out of identities — interpreting it as a survival kit to allay the terror of the boundaries imposed by certainties and rootedness. Greene, Iyer writes, was fascinated by Edward Thomas’s poem, “The Other”. He even devised an Other of his own — a pseudonym — to win magazine competitions.
Iyer’s sympathies for the novelist’s chequered private life are thus premised on his understanding of this doubleness. Greene ostensibly considered an act of kindness to be more important than morality. Yet, he shows a disquieting inability to feel for the women he claimed to love. Even the loyal and unflappable Iyer confesses his discomfort on discovering the similarities in the tenors of the passionate letters Greene had written to his American mistress, Catherine Walston, and the ones he had written to his wife, Vivien. (Greene’s other lovers included the Swedish actress, Anita Björk, and Yvonne Cloetta, a married French woman.) While arguing that Greene’s infidelities could be attributed to his fear of a life of fixity and his fascination with unsettledness, Iyer opens the possibility of interpreting Greene’s private exchanges as some sort of a performance. The language employed by Greene in his private correspondence, tinged as it was with drama and passion, was strikingly different from that of his literary prose, which Evelyn Waugh had once described in Commonweal as “devoid of sensuous attraction”.
Greene was not unaware of his falsity. His final alter ego is made to wonder whether he has ever loved at all. But this self-scrutiny, sustained through his works of fiction, is not enough to elicit empathy either from the women he claimed to love but betrayed or from a cynical reader. These revelations also torpedo Iyer’s claims of Greene being a novelist who wanted to “see every situation in the round”. Unlike his hero, Iyer shows a greater understanding of the power that binds him to the women he meets in the course of his travels. For these women, often trapped in lands without dreams, the traveller is the key to a new, perhaps better, world.
But it is to this man with darkness inside that Iyer turns to illuminate matters of faith. In Bogotá, the spectacle of the city’s feuding groups uniting temporarily under the Cross is not enough to heal Iyer’s wound of doubt. But Greene, with his uncanny ability to evoke a sense of sympathy for the ironies of the human condition, seems to have answered some of Iyer’s questions. Iyer derives a sense of peace from Greene’s dismantling of the idea of the enemy, leaving both the good and the bad in the twilight of grey.
Greene also helps Iyer achieve a better understanding of yet another grey presence, his father. One of the threads that binds his father and Greene to him, Iyer discovers, was their preoccupation with innocence and its loss. Iyer writes, “Greene’s great theme was always innocence... with one character looking back at the hopefulness he’s just lost and another, still unfallen, whose imminent exile we ache for”. After his father’s death, Iyer comes across a copy of a book written by him in which his father had marked out a sentence, which his son had cited from Proust: “The real paradises are the paradises lost.” His father’s death, Iyer conceded, was not a finality. Greene, Iyer’s ‘adopted parent’, had shown him the path that leads back to his father.
The Man Inside My Head will surprise Iyer’s fans in many ways. Unlike his other works, this is about a journey that is turned inwards. It also has a far more personal tone, especially for a renowned travel writer used to observing new places with an objective and unerring eye. Finally, readers unfamiliar with Greene’s works can also thank Iyer for handing out a compass to chart the novelist’s complex and enigmatic world.