19 July 2012

The Man Within My Head

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian

Pico Iyer awakens one night and finds himself almost possessed; he writes a feverish sketch titled “Greene” that he cannot himself comprehend, much less contextualise. But this he comes to realise: it is Graham Greene that he must seek out if he is to excavate and recognise the several sensations that crowd his mind and heart. Thus begins this glorious, gorgeous book, part-memoir, part-biography – a “counter-biography,” as Iyer puts it – that took the author over a decade to write. It is the story of Iyer’s deeply personal, impressionistic journey with Graham Greene, whom he has never met, but has adopted as his sometime father.

Greene’s life bears startling resemblances to Iyer’s own. The “hauntedness” that Iyer describes – and what a fine word it is! – is something we have all experienced in our negotiations with our idols. It is not merely that we have loved and followed them in our own and particular ways, it is also that we find, every so often, that our lives have unknowingly shadowed theirs, that theirs have mirrored ours. In appropriating them, we become self-fulfilling prophecies. We seek them out in all the things we do, snapping up those coincidences that inevitably map two distant lives and engaging in connections that seem far too intimate for what can only be termed a one-sided relationship to allow. Our most surreal, unreal loves are formed in just this way, and whatever we term them – father, friend, mentor – we find that we are affected by them in indefinable and impractical ways.

The Man Within My Head is not just about the act of reading Greene, though; it is about the very specific act of Iyer reading Greene, of Iyer reading himself reading Greene, of Iyer using his reading of Greene to uncover his well-hidden demons. Very soon, a parallel narrative is formed, about Iyer’s relationship with his real father, a man he has sought to displace with Graham Greene. As Iyer uses his investigations of Greene to understand himself, he locates the many deceits of adopted, and real, parenthood: “The whole point of an adopted parent, I’d often thought, is that you can have him to yourself. He’s a figment of your imagination, in a sense, someone you’ve created to satisfy certain needs, so he’s always there, in your head, at your disposal. Real parents have lives to attend to, lives beyond our understanding, and they commit, most of all, the sin of being real; they’re human and distractible and fallible.”

But Iyer mournfully finds this to be untrue. He does not choose Greene; Greene is pinned upon him by some inscrutable bond: “our shadow associates are, like parents (or godparents), presences we’ve never chosen and, like many of our loves or compulsions, blur the lines inside us by living beyond our explanations.” What we do find, though, within the imagined camaraderie of literary obsession, is the sympathetic fellowship of those after whom we have fashioned ourselves.

The three parts of the book cover ghosts, gods, and fathers, easily interchangeable and threaded together, albeit somewhat thinly, by Iyer’s journeys. He traverses continents and cultures, as he often does in his best-loved work, with the easy, unexpected melancholy of a transient lover, charting Greene within his journeys, plotting his characters across the world, sometimes even seeking them out.

Early in the book, Iyer recalls a man of Indian descent whom he encountered in a little provincial town in Mexico. Later, as he tries to piece together the man’s story, he remembers that it was Greene alone, who, in his prolific sketches of the wanderer’s itinerant soul, seemed to have captured this man on paper. This is what we long for in art – a looking-glass to reality that somehow doubles up as a window to escape it. We search deeply, hoping to find ourselves submerged in authorial intent, often even expecting to find solutions, if not always salvation. But we search, too, for the people that we meet, expecting their back stories – at least the ones that we have invented for them – to be diffused and decoded in the ways that only the writers we love can. This Iyer finds as often in Greene as the traveller finds in Iyer himself.

The reverse works, too. As he drifts through Saigon, Iyer half-expects characters from Greene’s A Quiet American to step out on to the streets and accost him (and, at times, they do). These are the irrational expectations that fiction presses upon us. The return to life is, ironically, less maddening when we have invested ourselves so powerfully in the worlds we long to inhabit that we do, in fact, continue to inhabit them in silent and puzzling ways long after we have left them. Just as we take up residence in these worlds, these worlds take up residence within us, and we repeatedly find ourselves looking inward when our intent is to look outward. In serendipitous moments, we perhaps know the people we love before we have met them, simply because we have read about them. Such are the chambers into which fiction entraps us.

Iyer writes, “The paradox of reading is that you draw closer, to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.” In this way, this is every-reader’s story. But it is also every-writer’s story. Besides himself, Iyer likens Greene to P. G. Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham, Henry James, and John le Carre, admitting, at some point, “the man I felt such closeness to was a type.” Above all, though, this is every-son’s story.

The trouble with quoting Pico Iyer is the temptation to quote him in entirety, to serve up the complete book as an example of the striking beauty of his writing. His exquisite prose bears multiple readings, a few of which must be devoted to the sheer appreciation of his elegant turn of phrase, his stunning construction, and the piercing loveliness of his pathos. As in his travel-writing, Iyer is a gentle sort of companion – clear-headed, warm-hearted, and peaceable. His own private revelations and discoveries of Greene are just that – his own. A regular reader of Iyer knows that his journey need not be her own, that he is more a benevolent philosopher than a guide. But there’s a fatherly kind of guidance in that as well.

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