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.
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.
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.
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.