Book review: The Man Within My Head

(Published in the Business Standard, April 2012)

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of The Matter
The Man Within My Head
Pico Iyer
Penguin India,
Rs 499, 242 pages

There is nothing passive about the act of reading. It may seem mysterious that one writer exerts a powerful undertow on your life while another leaves not even a watermark impress, but there is nothing accidental about the choice a writer makes in his literary friendships.

In a hotel room in La Paz, Bolivia, a writer who has come here seeking a break from his desk begins to write, unstoppably. He writes about a boy in boarding school, left alone among a host of boys whose fathers have all just “vanished down the driveway”; his name is Greene.

“Was it only through another that I could begin to get at myself?” asks Iyer. And with this, he opens up a thoroughly original meditation into literary friendship—into the twinned faith and doubt he shared with Greene, into a world of fathers and sons, innocence and guilt. The Man Within My Head pays tribute, even in its title, to Greene, whose first book was a novel, The Man Within.Pico Iyer’s first book, published in 1984, was The Recovery of Innocence: Literary Glimpses of the American Soul.

These essays, now hard to locate, came out seven years before the death of Graham Greene, who had written in The Quiet American: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

Neither Greene nor Iyer ever had that kind of innocence themselves, though they saw it and responded to it, sometimes helplessly, in others. In his travel writing, Iyer travels defiantly as a permanent outsider wherever he might be, rather than the all-knowing narrator who infests the travel magazines. “So long as I was loose in the world, unaccompanied, I was never bored or at a loss,” he writes.

Greene, unlike Iyer, was often a terrible traveler; “at night there are far too many objects flying and crawling”, he writes of Freetown, where he found life “pretty grim”. But Greene’s more flamboyant side does not alienate Iyer. He can discuss Greene’s many affairs and his drinking with interest, though he shares neither of these parallel and demanding occupations. Drawn to monasteries himself, Iyer’s broad curiosity would allow him to be amused by Greene’s plans to open a brothel in Bissau as a way of gathering espionage information. (Kim Philby, Greene’s boss, turned this down; it would not have been economically profitable.)

But the affinity—the very real kinship—between Iyer and Greene has deeper roots. “If you try to push him into a compartment,” Iyer writes of Greene, “you’ll always get it wrong.” He could be writing about himself; both writers have a complex relationship with faith, for instance, and neither can be easily straitjacked, either as the Catholic writer or as the monkish novelist. “You can’t read the books in terms of ideologies,” he tells us of Greene. In his own writing, he finds himself walking through Greenesland.

It took ten years for Iyer to write this book, and perhaps more; perhaps this goes back to his childhood, shaped at the kind of British schools that shaped Greene. This might be the closest that Iyer—most open and yet most reticent of writers—gets to writing his autobiography, which he does sidelong. Why is he drawn to Greene? Why not another writer? He knows and doesn’t know the answer to this, and he shares as much as he can with his wife, Hiroko.

“I couldn’t quite convey even to her how difficult it was at times to read The Quiet American: I’d pick up my worn orange copy with the pages beginning to separate from their binding, and I’d see a brash American reaching out for support, or Fowler calling the man he’s more or less condemned to death his “friend” (perhaps his only friend), or see him trying to petition his wife for a divorce and realizing, at the very end, that, as Teresa of Avila had it, more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered, and I couldn’t say why it struck me with such force.

”When Iyer writes his essay about Greene, Sleeping With The Enemy, for Time magazine, his father leaves a message on his answering machine. As the father speaks, he is so moved that he begins to sob. “It was a shocking thing, to hear a man famous for his fluency and authority lose all words.” Some weeks later, Iyer’s father is dead; that “gasping call about Graham Greene” is the last memory the writer has of hearing from him.

The ideal father, he reflects, would be an adopted one, a virtual or a chosen father who could offer answers to the questions left behind, the ones that sons (and all children) never get to ask their parents in the end. Instead, Iyer has Graham Greene, the man with whom he shares his secrets, his sins, his most intimate needs. It is a closer relationship, this claimed kinship between a dead writer and a living one, than any other could be.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: