The Man Within My Head
Travel writer Pico Iyer examines his own obsession with famed English novelist and fellow globetrotter Graham Greene.
Some travel to find a mystery within themselves, to mask what’s dull in their natures through encounters with strange towns, faces, and landscapes. But Pico Iyer, a novelist and a roving reporter born in England to Indian parents, feels himself to be transformed into a global cypher on his trips abroad. Both intoxicated and disoriented by the slip in his identity, Iyer, in his new memoir, The Man Within My Head, turns himself into an alter-ego of the famed English writer and globetrotter Graham Greene, in part to ground himself.Skip to next paragraph
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It’s a surprising choice, since Greene can be a grim companion. The brooding convert to Catholicism, born in 1904 and best known for his historic novel about persecuted priests in Mexico, “The Power and the Glory” (1940), treated travel as a form of self-punishment, creating characters who wore their displacement like a hair shirt. He himself went overseas to escape both England – where the likeness of his countrymen repelled him – and his romantic entanglements.
Despite such flights, he managed to steep himself in suffering; his fiction is filled with the sins of men in foreign lands, fleeing their damned existence.
“A lonely man,” Iyer writes of Greene’s stock hero, “finding himself in a turbulent place he doesn’t know quite what to do with – this is how his later fables begin, usually – takes on a pretty young local companion; she gives him calm and kindness, but her very sweetness reminds him of how unworthy he is, and his sense of protectiveness makes him want to defend her even from himself.”
If Greene’s tales buy into the concept of original sin, he is tender to characters who judge and condemn themselves. Perhaps that’s why Iyer, like an antihero from Greene’s work, cops a guilty stance. Often, he overestimates his role in the human dramas of the Third World. In Vietnam, he fancies himself the imagined savior of a pert prostitute ignoring him in an Internet cafe. In Bolivia, he worries that the middle-aged woman doubling as his translator and guide wants to turn their workday into a night in his hotel bed.
It might be laughable – indeed, it sometimes is – when the Iyer of this memoir (bookish and almost infested with goodwill) entertains a view of himself as a postcolonial despoiler, plundering the hopes and trust of the less fortunate of Cuba, Burma, or Colombia. But he writes with such earnestness – in an awed hush – that it’s hard not to come away with a sense of the dreamlike state that can result when a journalist steps off a plane into a tropical world, at times replete with a towering mountain range and over-oxygenated air.