The Man Within My Head
Travel writer Pico Iyer examines his own obsession with famed English novelist and fellow globetrotter Graham Greene.
(Page 2 of 2)
Regardless, Iyer is an absorbing writer. His gift lies in his ability to break through the sensory overload of an alien place, where the scents and sights can overwhelm those unused to them. In the midst of Babble, Iyer finds a writerly quiet, then transmits back a few internal sounds that respond to and are at home with the unfamiliar.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Still, a whiff of shame marks his comings and goings. To be chronically in transit suggests an evasion of one’s life, alongside an awareness, he writes, of “the cost of watching from the sidelines.” Recalling a winter trip that he took to Bhutan, with only a novel by Greene along for warmth, he asks, “Why was I here, in a country with which I had no connection when I could be somewhere that had real stakes for me? Why was I not with my new love, Hiroko, in Japan, instead of collecting impressions of a place that ultimately meant little to me?”
Hard to choose a soundtrack for this lament. (Should it be “I’m a Wanderer,” by Dion, or “Only the Lonely,” by a falsetto-struck Roy Orbison?) Angst aside, Iyer seems sincere in his befuddlement. Like his writerly hero, Greene, he feels afflicted by his need to roam.
The urge stems, Iyer says, from his training in early life: his first staid years in England, followed by a move with his parents to California in the fizzy '60s, then a return to Britain for boarding school. There, he encountered Greene’s fiction and his depiction of the split nature of man in the form of a “whiskey priest” – a cowardly alcoholic with unshakeable Christian faith – in his 1940 masterpiece.
Iyer makes Greene a stand-in, too, for his own paterfamilias, a brilliant academic with a gift for eloquence. But why he shucked the latter’s wisdom for the former’s remains murky. “Blood relations are not always the closest ones,” he guesses. Earlier, he ventures, “I thought how the fathers who create us are much harder to forgive than the ones we create, in part because they’re much harder to escape from.”
True: whether those fathers live in Bolivia, Bhutan, or the imagination. By the end of this well-written memoir, most of the foreigners feel like intimates. But the author stays a stranger to himself.
Susan Comninos is a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor. Her journalism has also recently appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward and Albany Times Union. Last year, she won the Yehuda Halevi Poetry Contest run by Tablet Magazine.