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Pico Iyer's latest book is not exactly a memoir, not quite a literary biography--or an homage--to Graham Greene, and certainly not a book of travels. But it is, of course, something of all of those things, a hybrid creature that carries the reader along, thanks to Iyer's usual facile way with words. It is Iyer's most enjoyable book I've read, and not surprisingly, it's his most personal.
He opens the book during a visit to La Paz, Bolivia, and I can picture being back there myself, along the main streets with cholas selling M&Ms and lottery tickets, bowler hats perched on their heads. I picture a simple hotel room--and that's where Iyer is: sitting at a desk thinking about Graham Greene and writing, always writing or reading. When he was at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge in February 2012, Iyer said he had been working on this book for more than eight years, and had accumulated more than 2,700 pages in drafts: the words kept spilling out of him. (Happily, he trimmed it down to its current 238 pages.)
The man within his head is Graham Greene. Like Iyer, Greene was a bit too popular to be admitted into the literary establishment, and a man who was always an outsider, more by choice than anything else. Greene spent many years toward the end of his life in a small apartment in the Antibes, far smaller and almost hidden compared to his neighbor, Somerset Maugham, not too far a way in an impressive mansion. Iyer, too, willfully sets himself apart: he's lived for years in a small two-room apartment outside of Kyoto.
Iyer recounts his childhood: born to Indian parents, initially growing up in Oxford; a move to California in the 1960s, where his father teaches and accumulates acolytes; traditional boarding school back in England; always split between worlds. Much like Graham Greene, who never quite felt at home anywhere, and whose characters had the same experience of, well, not exactly alienation, but a clear sense of being apart. Iyer returns often to Greene's The Quiet American, and its prescient understanding of how the British and Americans are swapping not just positions of dominance in the world but also those of certainty and doubt. Iyer travels to Vietnam, and we see how the types Greene writes about linger on still. (Readers would probably get more out of this book if they are familiar with the Greene originals; maybe it will inspire me to read him again.)
"A man within your head whispers his secrets and fears to you, and it can go right to your core," Iyer writes. For much of Iyer's life, that man is Greene, but he comes to realize there's another man he really barely knows who has also taken up residence in his head: his father, with whom he's never been very close. It's that old inheritance: we are our father's sons, even if we'd prefer to think that our literary heroes are our pole stars. In the book, Iyer slowly learns these lessons, and he tells the story with ease.
At the Harvard Book Store reading someone in the audience pointed out that while Iyer was slowly writing and rewriting this book over those eight years, he also wrote The Open Road, his book about the Dalai Lama. Iyer was amused and taken aback. He said he just realized that both those books' titles could be interchangeable: there are clearly many men within Iyer's head, and all are trying to point him in the direction of useful wisdom, useful for living one's life in this wide open world.