Pico Iyer, the consummate traveller who wrote a pioneering guidebook to the global village almost 25 years ago with Video Night in Kathmandu, and who has since penned more than half a dozen books of restless seeking, geographic and spiritual, all the while supporting his peripatetic existence with a steady revenue stream from erudite articles with exotic place names for leading English-language publications, has finally settled down. More than ever, he sticks close to “home” – with Iyer, the concept is never merely geographical – in what he considers to be a still-medieval corner of rural Japan.
“Writing is more of an adventure than travel for me now,” says Iyer, greyer and balder at the age of 55than he was during his last visit to Toronto – a city where he claims to be “culturally more at home than any place on earth” – but still as precise, disarmingly attentive and fearsomely articulate as ever in his soft-spoken, Oxbridge-inflected manner. What excites him today, Iyer adds, “is trying to generate new forms, to create new countries on the page.”
As vague as it may sound, that is exactly what Iyer has accomplished with his latest book, The Man Within My Head, a hybrid creation sufficiently original as to be indefinable – a book its author describes most easily by what it is not.
“It’s not really non-fiction and it’s not quite fiction,” he says helpfully. “It’s not memoir and it’s not biography.” More negatives appear in the scenes from the book, as Iyer struggles to explain to his Japanese wife, Hiroko, the purpose of the eight-year project that had generated such huge, smothering piles of paper in their home. Like Iyer himself – and very much like the author Graham Greene, the ever-elusive subject of his not-biography – The Man Within My Head is a restless evader of all given categories, a book that like them “refuses to settle for any expectations.”
Although inevitably comparable to Nicholson Baker’s U and I, which chronicles that writer’s infatuation with fellow writer John Updike, The Man Within My Head is a moral as much as a literary quest, with Greene’s dodgy Catholicism enough of a focus in itself to make this volume a fitting third in a trilogy that includes Iyer’s previous books on Sufism ( Abandon, a novel) and Buddhism ( The Open Road: The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama). In Greene, an author who has so haunted him throughout his career as to displace his own father in his mind, Iyer has found the ideal spiritual guide.
“All his novels are unreliable gospels for people who can’t be sure of a thing,” he writes in the heart of his book.
Although other writers of Greene’s generation may be more distinguished, “I’m not sure they invaded people’s minds they way Greene did,” Iyer says, emphasizing the verb and elaborating the point with examples of “very precise hauntings” he has documented similar to his own experience of Greene as literary poltergeist. “I’m really interested in what it is about him that so manages to cast a spell over people, benign or otherwise,” he says.
Greene as the ruthlessly fair-minded navigator of impossible moral complexity is what makes him so compelling today, according to his admirer. “Greene is always seeing the other man’s point of view,” Iyer says. “He refuses to believe his assumptions are the correct ones.
“That’s what I most like about Greene, especially these days when the world seems to be coming more and more polarized and more and more in love with extreme opinions,” he adds, “and it’s ever easier to be surrounded by the like-minded and therefore to be walled in by one’s preconceptions.”
The process of unwalling his own preconceptions has been a lifelong quest for Iyer, who sees a mirror of Greene’s high-minded lack of commitment in his own unsettled life story as a “100 per cent Indian who was born and brought up in England, raised in California and lives in Japan.”
And who, like Greene, refuses to alight on any simple, comforting version of life’s truth. “I always felt with Greene that if he found a religion or a person who answered all his questions he’d be out the door in a minute,” Iyer says. “He’s congenitally unable to accept that final resolution, and that no doubt is also true of me.”
As facile a writer as he is a talker, Iyer spent eight years and generated no fewer than 3,000 “fact-checked, proofread, finished pages” of The Man Within My Head – including many devoted to fictional episodes with invented characters – before distilling them into the dense and elegant 240 pages of the work as published.
“In my earlier books I tried to put everything in, and the longer I live in Japan the more interested I am in taking things out,” he says.
“Of course,” he adds, “Japan is the aesthetic home of the empty room.”
Which is a place where Pico Iyer finally feels profoundly at home, physically embedded in an ancient landscape where nothing happens while his imagination explores new frontiers of literary expression.