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A memoir of a remarkable life that disappointingly reveals less than it promises.

Pico Iyer (right) examining archival material before speaking about ‘The Man Within My Head’ at the New York Public Library on 7 February this year. COURTESY JORI KLEIN
01 May, 2012

A COUPLE OF DAYS BEFORE I began reading The Man Within My Head, a friend told me she had met the author’s father, Raghavan N Iyer, many years ago. At that first and only meeting, the celebrated philosopher, Oxford University professor and theosophist told my friend that he had abstained from sex until his wife was ready to conceive. He wanted to ensure that the product of their union would be exceptional, he said. The result was their only child, Pico Iyer.

It seemed an extraordinarily intimate story to share with a stranger. Yet as I gradually immersed myself in this superbly layered and detail-laden memoir, I began to understand how appropriate it was too. The author is exceptional in so many ways at once that even the least description of him shimmers with superlatives. He won academic scholarships to Eton, Harvard and Oxford University. He earned a ‘Congratulatory Double First’ at Oxford in the seventies before going on to teach at Harvard. In 1982 he joined TIME magazine. In his travel memoirs, he wears his accomplishments lightly, though it’s clear from his own evidence that he’s multilingual, has a phenomenal memory, plays the guitar and the piano and—probably most astounding of all—has survived five decades of near-continuous international travel with his sanity intact.

The hook upon which Iyer chooses to hang the story of his life is not, however, his intellectual achievements but a parallel narrative involving the novelist, adventurer, philanderer and always-defaulting Catholic, Graham Greene. The book begins with Iyer waking from a fitful sleep in the oxygen-depleted atmosphere of Bolivia. Abruptly, a description begins to pour out of him and onto paper, of a young schoolboy’s thoughts upon arriving at his English boarding school. “What was going on here?” he asks.

I put my pen down and stared at what I’d done, as if it were something I’d found rather than composed. I’d been at a school akin to this thirty years before—the emotions weren’t entirely foreign to me—but why was the main character in the sketch called “Greene”, as if he had something to do with the long-dead English novelist? [...] Why couldn’t I have used the name “Brown”—or “Black” or “White” or “Grey”? [...]Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?

Answering his own question in the affirmative, he sets out to examine the many nodes at which his life story intersects with that of the English novelist, “the man within [my] head”. Some of these nodes are geo-biographical: Greene had lived for a time on a road just minutes away from the address at which Iyer had lived as a child. Greene’s daughter was born in the same hospital as Iyer. Greene’s son had gone to the same elementary school. Both men saw their homes go up in flames in front of their eyes during their mid-30s.

Then there are the points at which fiction and nonfiction collide—the encounter in Cuba for instance:

We stepped out, one sweltering afternoon, of the little Casa Grande Hotel in Santiago de Cuba and, as soon as we got into a car, a stranger slipped in and promised to show us around; a few years later I read how Greene had stepped out of the little Casa Grande Hotel in Santiago de Cuba, thirty-five years before we did, and as soon as he got into a car, a stranger slipped in, promising to show him around.

There’s the girl in Saigon, who settles in front of a computer terminal near Iyer “...and began logging on to her hotmail account [...] If you have a dangerous curiosity about the world, or if you’re just a writer of sorts, trained to collect observations, you become, in such situations, shameless [...] I looked over, while deep in my message, to see what the young lady was responding to [...] a love letter from an admirer now in Germany. ‘Dear Phuong,’ it began”—and of course, anyone who has read or seen The Quiet American will recognise that name as the one Greene gave the Vietnamese girl at the heart of what may be his most haunting novel.

Iyer’s tour is enormously engaging and highly readable. This is not, however, to say that the parallels he draws between his life and Greene’s are especially convincing. One man spent his entire life attempting to outrun the narrow parochialism of his Britishness while the other man grew up prereleased from the tiger-cage of his parents’ Asian traditions by being born in the UK. One man married a Catholic and spent the better part of his life with the Cross hanging like a pterodactyl from his neck. The other man had a bouquet of faiths—Brahmanical Hinduism, Theosophy, Catholicism, Sufism and Zen Buddhism, to name a few—from amongst which to pick his personal philosophy. One man openly acknowledged his struggles with Eros, while the other man, at least going by the evidence of his own accounts of himself, is an unusually sober and ascetic being.

But Iyer is a sophisticated writer with a flair for tucking large ideas into small spaces—three genies in one lamp, so to speak. In this book, for instance, he reveals that of course he’s known all along that there were two other “men within”. One was his father and the other, needless to say, was himself. When a friend asks if he’s writing a biography of Greene, Iyer answers:

Oh no. The opposite. A counterbiography, as it were. I don’t think you find someone by going to where he lived, least of all someone as shifting and undomesticated as Greene. I’m interested in the things that lived inside him. His terrors and obsessions. Not the life, as it were, but what it touched off in the rest of us.

This is such a clever bit of misdirection because he, of course, has adopted exactly the same strategy to narrate the story of his own life. And “terror” and “obsession” in his story might be code for ‘Father’ and ‘Greene’ respectively.

IYER’S EASE WITH MULTIPLE THEMES is on display in his early travelogue The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (1991). The story of his year at a Zen monastery in Japan is simultaneously a romance between himself and the woman who eventually becomes his wife, a meditation upon modern Japan and an introduction to those foreign visitors to Japan who, like himself, come seeking Zen only to find disillusionment. Or romance. Or a heady combination of the two.

In his 2003 novel, Abandon: A Romance, Iyer takes his fondness for genie-tucking up a notch. His exquisitely paced tale discusses several levels of passion—intellectual, political, spiritual, emotional. On one level, it’s a quiet book about a scholar’s quest for truth. It’s also about the globalised life of modern academics and the worm of politics that gnaws at the heart of all knowledge. Then there’s the romance. The word is in the book’s subtitle and there’s an actual couple whose faltering progress towards love we can follow. But right alongside this couple there’s another romance, and it smoulders within this austere-seeming novel with impossible intensity, like an incandescent ice cube.

Two other exceptional novels start out with a similar premise: Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music and Possession by AS Byatt. Both books are centred upon professionals, a musician and a literary academic, respectively. Their quests are made all the more intense on account of their own restrained and understated personalities, the very Britishness that makes their passion seem tumultuous by contrast.

English screenwriter, playwright, travel writer, essayist and best selling novelist Graham Greene (1904 - 1991). EVENING STANDARD / GETTY IMAGES

Iyer’s protagonist is English, too—a PhD student in pursuit of a lost manuscript. But the setting is California, the manuscript involves Sufi poetry and, ultimately, the energy that powers the story is the burning bush of forbidden faith rather than romantic love. By the end of the book he focuses the reader’s attention upon the passion at the heart of Islam—the love of the Absolute that Sufi mystics sing about, where God is adored as The Beloved. His protagonists visit postrevolutionary Iran in a highly charged state of mind, driven equally by their love of literature as by their self-destructive impulses. The resulting passage is both deeply moving and bristling with tensions, like a dessert made of jalapeño peppers.

Iyer’s years of writing about the globetrotter’s life in back-page essays for TIME magazine provided an excellent foundation for Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-so-Far East (1988), a collection of essays and observations about cultures in transition. By contrast, The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (2000), seems forced and tired: the global traveller struggling to maintain his appetite for newness on too little sleep and no time zone to call his own. The Lady and the Monk provides an elegant and lyrical transition from a life of continuous travel to one rooted in a quiet, Japanese backwater. By the time I began reading Abandon, his autobiographical voice was so familiar to me that it was a surprise to discover that his fictional persona was much more compelling. Recalling his plaintive question, stated early in The Man Within My Head, about needing “another” before he could get to himself, it seemed to me that he showed more of his ‘real’ self while shrouded in the persona of a fictional being.

The Man Within My Head PICO IYER PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA Rs. 256 pages, 499

THERE’S OBLIQUE PROOF OF THE BLURRING between truth and fiction on the cover of my edition of Abandon. Inserted among the elegant Islamic decorative motifs is a tightly-cropped sepia photograph of a face. The same image appears on the spine, upside down. The credit-line does not identify the face, which looks a lot like Iyer Senior. Yet this is a novel, not a memoir and the protagonist is Anglo-Saxon, not South Asian.

“I had already been deep in Greene for more than fifteen years,” says Iyer in The Man Within my Head, “when, finally, one midsummer day of coastal fog, our house in California seeming to sit above the world, removed by the clouds below, I picked up his very first published novel, spookily entitled The Man Within.” Spooked is what I felt, too, the first time I noticed that face peering out of Abandon’s front cover! The half-familiar features and that knowing smile were more appropriate to the autobiography I was reviewing than to the novel. But why was it on that book at all?

Iyer Senior was openly interested in occultism and the mystical world. His son tells us that “Growing up in a household with so rich and vibrant a sense of spirits spooked me at times, so I took shelter in the robust skepticisms of school; I was more than happy to close the door on forces I knew I couldn’t control.” Nevertheless, he sprinkles his personal story with anecdotes about prescience and unlikely coincidences. Some of these—for instance, Greene’s birth date being the same as Mahatma Gandhi’s—are unremarkable: how many million humans, saints and sinners alike, share that date, after all? Others, like the girl named Phuong in modern day Saigon or the burning down of both men’s homes, are certainly startling. A true sceptic, however, would simply shrug them away. Iyer documents these moments with a wistful air, as if hoping to find a grander design than cold logic permits.

Iyer admits he fought his father’s influence and offers up a few examples of boyhood indiscretions. There was the failed attempt at making an anonymous obscene phone call to his home in California which resulted in his father flying to England, fearing that his son was suffering an asthma attack. There was the time Iyer was almost discovered in flagrante delicto with a girlfriend in his digs at Oxford. His attempts to break away were only partially successful. He tells us that it pained his father to know that England was not the centre of his son’s universe—but he goes there anyway, to complete his studies. He rejected his father’s choice in books in early life, only to discover eventually that some of his favourite pieces of literature, such as The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination by John Livingston Lowes and William Butler Yeats’s ‘When You Are Old’, had indeed been his father’s favourites too.

If all of Pico Iyer’s infractions were taken together, however, they would fill a thimble compared to the Olympic-size swimming pool of Graham Greene’s improprieties.  Here was a man who cheated on his wife, his faith, his mistresses and, in the opinion of his detractors, perhaps even his country.

It sometimes seemed that Greene was never able to discount the existence of God precisely because he believed so fervently in the existence of His shadow. From a very early age, he’d had an unusually keen sense of evil, and story after story, through his life, shows young boys driven by motiveless malignity who are capable of doing almost anything. That’s one reason why even his most drifting characters cannot erase an image of goodness, or a code of some kind of virtue, from their heads. It doesn’t stand to reason that there could be shadow without light.

Iyer regales us with the hectic pace of his travelling-circus of a life, crossing and recrossing the world, the hustlers and fixers he befriends, the near-escapes from death in the Sahara and the Andes. By the book’s end, we’ve witnessed scenes in his schools, his colleges, his hotel rooms, the monasteries he’s found peace in. We know that he made his home in Japan and married a Japanese woman; that his mother, also a philosopher, remains alive in California; that his father died unexpectedly early, at the age of 65. Whatever he shows us, however, it’s only one half of the binary pair: the light, but not the shadow.

A contemporary of his describes Iyer Senior in this book as “The brightest star in our solar system. We used to go to his house just to listen to him talk.” He was a Rhodes Scholar and a charismatic lecturer, with the “ability to stand before any audience and talk without notes,” says his son, “hypnotic, on almost any topic from Tolstoy to Plotinus ... in his final exams he did so well, he won a research fellowship to deepen his studies into Gandhi and the philosophical roots of nonviolence.”

But what was it like to have such an eminent man as a father? Was the presence of this magnetic personality glittering so close at hand the counterpart, for Iyer, of the Church in Greene’s life? Did he use his brilliant parent as the focus of his disobedience and defiance in the same way as the older novelist fought or sought the influence of Catholicism?

If so, we are only given fragmentary evidence. The younger Iyer describes himself as “a skinny teenager with hair made ... for a lead guitarist” and “a scruffy mongrel living in Japan”, while his father dressed nattily: “black corduroy jacket, dark slacks, an overcoat ... and a blazing yellow shirt”. Iyer is never openly disloyal or hostile towards his father in this book, but I think he uses Greene as a proxy when he says, “I suppose a main character in a Graham Greene novel might have pretended to mock my father for having had more belief than a traditional Englishman admits to ...”

So even though The Man Within My Head is enjoyable, it comes across as a marvellous puppet show. Iyer manipulates Greene, his father and himself as if intending to bare his heart but in the end what he exposes is only an exquisitely wrought clockwork. By contrast, the father’s astonishingly intimate conception story, narrated so many years ago and told to me just by chance, made me feel as if I’d been given a ringside seat to a family drama. That single firefly’s insight into the father’s personality, and the combination of magic and sacrifice he invested in the creation of his son, was more poignant than anything I read within the book.

Iyer tells us: “Real fathers, unlike conscripted ones, sometimes misplace their sons and then spend all their lives wondering how they can ever get them back.” The same might be said of sons who misplace their fathers.