The first time I heard the name Pico Iyer I thought the person was saying “pique of ire”, as in “Have you ever read Pique o’ Ire?” Strange name for a book, I thought, though I liked the compounding of bad attitude. Was it a collection of some cranky old man’s aphorisms? An Irish boxer’s memoir?
It turned out Pico Iyer was something else entirely. A graduate of Eton, Oxford, Harvard and the world, Iyer is a writer the way some people are plumbers. It’s what he does. Though he has written novels (Abandon: A Romance 2003), meditative biography (The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama 2008) and probably poetry (everyone writes poetry), his most renowned form is reflective travel writing shot through with a spiritual sense: Travel as spiritual action. Along with such books as Video Night In Kathmandu (1988) and Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign (2004), Iyer appears frequently in, and has guest-edited, both the Best Spiritual Writing and Best Travel Writing anthologies, and is a regular contributor to Time and The New York Review of Books, among many other publications. In short, Iyer is a writer with reach.
When such a substantial writer takes on another even more formidable one, the results are bound to be at the very least interesting, and at the most thrilling and enlightening. Iyer’s The Man Within My Head leans very heavily to the latter. More than a memoir, The Man Within My Head is a testament, an engagement and a gift, really, to Iyer’s two “fathers”, one biological, the other “adopted”: the writer’s own philosopher/lecturer father Raghavan Iyer and the English novelist Graham Greene (the title is a clever extension of Greene’s title The Man Within).
Greene may seem an unlikely subject for someone like Iyer, a fact the writer himself acknowledges. An Indian raised partly in California would seem to have little in common with the quintessential “unquiet Englishman”, as Iyer refers to Greene. Yet because Greene is as essential a novelist for the English as, say, Hemingway is for many Americans, Iyer, like many other English-educated intellectuals of his generation, finds Greene one of the most insistent literary figures of the 20th century, perhaps the last Great One to wrestle with.
I wouldn’t expect a conventional biography from Iyer, and he offers instead what he terms a “counterbiography”. The background material is reflective and philosophical: “Greene’s training at the hands of [an] unorthodox spiritualist seems to have recalled to him how much of the world extends beyond our grasp, even if we long for certainty and conviction. [He] was learning how to take power apart, how to do justice to its victims, on both sides of the fence, how to make a home in his life for pain and even fear. As classmates set about making the official history of their people, he began picking at its secret life, its trembling, its wounds.”
That last line recalls Greene’s fable-like short story “Under The Garden”, in which a man with a terminal disease “rid[s] himself of illusions by seeing them again with clear and moribund eyes, so that he might be quite bankrupt when death came. He had the will to possess at that absolute moment nothing but his wound.”
This constant recognition of, if not quite tending to, humanity’s physical and psychic wounds permeates Greene’s work, contributing to its wicked low-keyed humor and, correlatively, its sometimes gloomy aura of inexorability. This isn’t to say Greene’s work is hopeless, just clear-eyed to a discomforting extent, as Iyer elucidates in some finely literary literary-appreciation:
“The pathos, the smothered kindness of his novels comes from the fact that the more generously the man tries to act, the more remote his salvation seems to become.”
“Greene… is acutely sensitive to all the ways we can fail to understand one another, even those people closest to ourselves […] He becomes the caretaker of that part of us that feels that we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around… It’s the best side of us, in his books—our consciences, our sense of sympathy, our feeling for another’s pain—that causes us the deepest grief. And God, if He even exists, is less a source of solace than a hound of Heaven, always on our path…”
Greene the Catholic novelist and Iyer the catholic writer share an unlikely spiritual kinship. Greene’s religious sense was directed by a kind of austere humanism, a religion of doubt, wherein God’s agency seems just as dubious as humanity’s. “All his novels,” writes Iyer, “are unreliable gospels for those who can’t be sure of a thing.” Greene was suspicious of human innocence, seeing it as a kind of ignorant infection, as in this passage from The Quiet American: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
Such ostensible cynicism would seem antithetical to Iyer’s spiritual openness (of a Christian friends, he writes: “…the faith he slipped into his life, like a secret business card, meant that he could be wilder and more uninhibited than ever in his explorations because, deep down, he knew precisely where he stood.”) Yet both Greene and Iyer seem to feel that human integrity lies in the very ambiguity of our natures, wherein the lowest impulse is often the highest, and where God, or whatever term one prefers, may be found in the most unlikely, lonely places (to cop from another Iyer title).
“The only crime in such a place [a brothel, “a much-needed hospital of the heart”] is to feel shame about one’s presence there. The only sins in the Greene universe are hypocrisy and putting a theory—even a religion—before a human being.”
It’s clear why Iyer is such a successful travel writer. He has remarkable descriptive powers, capturing photographic flashes of stillness amidst swirls of human chaos, plainly but magically:
“Inside the city of the dead [a cemetery in La Paz, Bolivia], a middle-aged man was patiently washing the windows of a drawer-like compartment in one of the multistory cabinets in which the departed lay, a red rose in front of most of their openings. Lovers stretched out on the grass next to huge sepulchers, enjoying the one spot in the city where their whispers would not be drowned out by the roar of passing buses. From somewhere along the long rows of cabinets, where Indian women rented out blue ladders for those whose loved ones were on higher floors, I could just make out a scratchy transistor radio, “Silent night, holy night…”
Iyer so invokes an environment through key imagist details, like blue ladders, that he satisfies any sedentary reader’s most voracious, vicarious tourism.
An itinerant nature is one of the primary things Iyer shares with Graham Greene. For Iyer, travel is a professional allegiance as much as a spiritual one: Anything, Anywhere for the Assignment as much as the Muse. “Home” is—must be—fundamentally and conveniently portable rather than immoveable and locatable: “…a physical location is unimportant so long as you live among values and assumptions that strike you as your own—or the ones you’d like to learn […] home lies in the things you carry with you everywhere and not the ones that tie you down.”
Clearly such a philosophy may cause a bit of trouble with one’s loved ones, particularly spouses. Greene was a notoriously absent husband, father and lover (From Greene’s The Power and the Glory: “…home is where there is a chair and a glass.”) Iyer is, for his part, very happily married to a Japanese woman named Hiroko, who makes sometimes exasperated appearances in the book, questioning her husband’s choice of subject: Why Graham Greene? This question Iyer asks himself and at least provisionally answers (I would say the book entire answers the question quite well):
“Who are these figures who take residence inside our heads, to the point where we can feel them shivering inside us even when we want to ‘be ourselves’? Who put them there, and why this man I’ve never met, and not that one? If I were to choose a secret companion, an unofficial alter ego, I would most likely fasten on someone… less unsettled than Greene […] But our shadow associates are, like parents, presences we’ve never chosen […] They make as little sense as the gods we choose to believe in, or the devils.”
He’s reluctant to accept Greene, to let the novelist in, but Greene insists on entering: “He was never a writer I dreamed of becoming, a wise man on top of things […] ‘Always, everywhere, there is some voice crying from a tower,’ he’d written in The Quiet American—it was all but the heart of his doctrine and his work—and as soon as one voice is answered, there is another, then another, and that one may be inside of us. That wasn’t what wanted to hear at all…But there he is, in spite of everything.”
Eventually Greene inhabits Iyer like a form of literary demon possession whose only exorcism is writing itself: “Uncalled for, and without wanting to, I began writing Greene stories instead of reading them. Out they came, from nowhere I could recognize, in a single burst, day after day […] he became the way I could unlock something in the imagination; he was the way I could get into places in myself that were otherwise well-defended.”
I find those last statements startlingly open and revealing, an admission whose easy passing belies its very depth and candor; even that semi-colon seems to lend it a nonchalant effect. The sentence makes of Greene a kind of primal key to Iyer’s restless and prolific writerly life.
Yet as telling as is the Greene material, the portions on Iyer’s actual father provide a more moving, personal portrait of the man within the writer. The hugely respected teacher, scholar and thinker Raghavan Iyer, who grew up in “the unglamorous outskirts of Bombay, son of a worker at the Ford Motor Company and a girl who had borne him when she was fifteen,” would tell his son “rich, many-chambered stories before… bed each night—The Ramayana mixed with all that he’d got from Tennyson and Shakespeare—and he taught me to read the newspaper almost as soon as I began to talk. By the time I was five, I was filling my green exercise books with long stories…”
Writing, then, was a vocation not drilled into Iyer, or willed even, but born. As a youth, his father wrote “startlingly confident and fluent pieces on utilitarianism and the end of the British Empire…” eventually acquiring fame for his on-the-spot eloquence, “his ability to stand before any audience and talk without notes, hypnotic, on almost any topic from Tolstoy to Plotinus. He won India’s only Rhodes Scholarship in 1950, and at Oxford he became president of the Oxford Union…”
When Iyer was eight, the family moved to Santa Barbara, California of all places, a ‘60s hotbed, or headbed, of critical and transcendental idealism. His father was “invited to join a think tank, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, at which philosophers from around the globe would gather to discuss, quite literally, how to make a new kind of city on a hill, and put together a fresh version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
Pretty daunting and esoteric shoes to fill! So Iyer was no different than most sons, trying—futilely, as with Greene—to outrun the image and influence of his father: “…the fact that he was so charismatic has, almost inevitably, made me a little suspicious of charm, and determined to make myself neutral, private, ideally unseen…But every son is helpless before the lines on his palm…[I would] bridle testily and throw out subterfuges whenever I was asked about the real person I resembled…whom I saw whenever I looked in the mirror.” (That last bit reminds me of one of my favorite Lou Reed lines: “He was turning into his parents/the Final Disappointment.”)
And yet, with his father’s death, in one of the book’s most moving passages, the son comes to appreciate just what a fallible and fathomless human being his father was. After reading an 18-page letter his father had written to a colleague, the son “…didn’t know what to do with the letter…I put it away in a closet, but the mystery of it was still inside our house, pulsing, breathing…I’d never known my father to plead like this, to berate, to summon forces of threat and a kind of prayer. Suddenly, he was very human…and came to seem, wounded, less public inspiration than something very close to home.”
The artist-poet Jean Cocteau set out once to paint a picture of a flower. Out came a self-portrait. In The Man Within My Head, Iyer encounters something similarly unintentional: “Like Greene… I’d never had much time for memoir; it was too easy to make yourself the center—even the hero—of your story […] But…in every book, there is another text, written in invisible ink between the lines, that may be telling the real story, of what the words evade.”