Monday, April 16, 2012

Travels into Greene-land

As a guide to far-flung places," the blurb on the book's front cover proclaims confidently, "Pico Iyer can hardly be surpassed."

The travel writer's latest volume however goes on a journey into a little more outre territory - his very own 'Greeneland', a place where obsession with Graham Greene mixes with an examination of the uncanny, if sometimes affected, links between Iyer's life and that of the celebrated English author. Both Greene and Iyer went to strict Empire-building British boarding schools, both were afraid of dentists, both were overshadowed by their fathers, both saw their houses burn down. But Iyer's lifelong fascination with Greene, chronicled across this book's 238 pages, goes beyond matching up coincidental quirks.

"I never wanted to seek out Greene's manuscripts or letters in research libraries; I made no conscious effort to track down those people who'd known him," Iyer writes. "He lived vividly enough inside me already, in some more shadowy place."

The Man Within My Head is in parts a biography (of Greene, the author), a memoir and literary criticism (covering the span of Greene's work), all sewn together by Iyer's patented and always insightful travel writing. The travel portions - like Greene's characters, Iyer spends time in destinations as desolate as Bolivia and Bhutan - somehow manage to combine the book's disparate genres into an engaging package that's much harder to put a label on.

Never having met the man, Iyer decides to take Greene on as an adopted parent. He is constantly haunted by the presence of the Englishman, both in his 'head' and in his writing. Rather than delving into the political or religious themes of Greene's work, not to mention the rumours that he lived a double life as a spy, Iyer decides instead to look at something more fundamental: questions of morality and innocence.

Greene's most famous work, The Quiet American, is to Iyer an "anguished and unending" internal debate between youth and adulthood; his debut novel, The Man Within (which Iyer's own title pays tribute to), is the story of a boy who is violently torn between "the romantic in him and the would- be cynic".

Your conscience, in Greene's work, is the real source of grief, not your evil. "The world of Greene is a world of greys," Iyer writes. "It is not that good and bad do not exist, but that they are so improbably mixed, in constant shifting proportions, that we cannot begin to tell friend from foe or right from wrong."

What seems like a simple parsing of literary themes, however, quickly becomes a way to understand the man himself. Iyer tells us how Greene fought tenaciously to stop a journalist from publishing a presumptuous book titled (in French) My Friend, Graham Greene , but then inexplicably sent the man's son through an expensive private school and then paid his way through studies in Oxford.

After unhappy attempts to appreciate Greene through his discovered love letters or his travel writing, Iyer decides the man is only at home and honest in his fiction. "And the reason I love him and he moved me so much was that he had the gift of seeming at last to set aside his evasions and false selves as soon as he began writing in another voice," Iyer writes.

Taking moral cues from an adoptive parent, however, forces Iyer to examine the relationship with his own father - celebrated Gandhi scholar and theosophist Raghavan Iyer, who was always too bright, too real and occasionally too spiritual (Pico chafes at his palmistry). Greene, on the other hand, seems to offer something more subtle.

But while attempting to discover the world through Greene's morality, the two father figures start to get muddled up. Greene's private correspondence turns out to be disappointing, but one of Raghavan Iyer's old letters to a friend ends up revealing a side his son never got to see. A chance meeting with an old student of his father's reveals that the two of them also shared coincidental quirks - both introduced the same obscure book to their classes, both loved the same unsung Yeats poem - even if they never discussed it.

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