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Pico Iyer

Derek Shapton

As far as I know, Graham Greene is unique among writers for having a country named after him. This "Greeneland" is a state of mind: a land of steamy, seedy, dangerous places; maimed personalities; evasions, betrayals, moral dilemmas. Foreshadowed in Greene's favourite words of Robert Browning, it lies "on the dangerous edge of things," where dwell "the honest thief, the tender murderer" and, not least, "the superstitious atheist."

Pico Iyer travels widely here in his thoughtful and compelling The Man Within My Head. At once biography, memoir, travelogue, literary criticism and personal meditation, this is a tale of fathers and sons, real and assumed. Iyer takes Greene (whom he never met) as a literary father, and examines this chosen bond against his fraught relationship with his true father, Indian-born philosopher and polymath Raghavan Iyer. A neo-Platonist and mystic, the elder Iyer named the younger Siddharth Pico Raghavan after Siddhartha the Buddha, Pico della Mirandola the Renaissance genius, and himself: a great weight of expectations. The "fathers who create us," the son writes, "are much harder to forgive than the ones we create, in part because they're much harder to escape."

Escape – from the self as much as others, from home to abroad – is an obsession Iyer shares with Greene and analyzes in them both. Why this restlessness, this tug of unbelonging? In the mid-1960s, when Pico was 8, his father took a job at a California think tank, uprooting the family from Oxford to the brashest edge of the New World. Torn between these worlds, young Iyer asks to be sent back to British boarding school. For the rest of childhood, he commutes by air between the precarious freedom of his sunny new home (which, like the Buddha's warning on the self, burns in a wildfire) and nine months of each year in institutions designed to mould young men to run an empire already dead.

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I went to some of those schools myself, and do not recall them fondly. No matter how good – and Iyer was a star scholar at the very best – they were monastic, archaic, sometimes brutal, always cut off from social realities, especially the mysterious world of girls and women. You gave your formative years to Latin, Greek, French, English and many other disciplines, but came away like a wolf-boy who has never mastered the mother tongue of home. "School was what we had instead of family," Iyer tells his startled Japanese wife.

For the young Graham Greene, at Berkhamsted School, his headmaster was also his father, which made things even worse – like being in a jail whose chief warden is your parent. The divide between school and home was a sinister baize door. Predictably, Greene became an outsider on both sides of it: mistrustful and mistrusted, beset by doubts and depression. Later, Iyer writes, he "would often tell more to his unmet readers than to his oldest friends. … There was a dance in him between evasion and an almost ruthless candour, his instinct for privacy and his need to purge himself of his secrets on the page."

Iyer's pithy critique of Greene's books is one of the great pleasures here. It is the novels he admires, notably The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The End of the Affair. Among their strengths was an almost uncanny gift of foresight: Greene's Cuban comedy anticipated the Missile Crisis; The Quiet American, arguably the great novel of Vietnam, came out years before Americans were openly fighting there. But Iyer doesn't shrink from pointing out that Greene's non-fiction travel books – especially The Lawless Roads, a Catholicism-inspired hatchet job against anticlerical Mexico in the 1930s – were "a near-perfect example of how not to write or think about travel."

First known for Video Night in Kathmandu, which he followed with many other travels, Pico Iyer seems to have been nearly everywhere. Though he works mainly in non-fiction, any insights inspired by Greene are refracted through the latter's fictional lens, not the factual one. In Iyer's view, Greene inherited this lens from Somerset Maugham – though Greene, oddly, credited Henry James – and handed it down to John le Carré (and, I would add, William Boyd).

Iyer lays no direct claim to this inheritance, though he shares Greene's natural clarity of prose. This distinguished traveller in "Greeneland" is a gentler and more open writer, kinder toward his subjects, less brutal with himself. Greene, the Catholic convert manqué, was haunted by a war between good and evil; Iyer has a subtler, less proscriptive wisdom worthy of his given names. Insightful, eloquent and truthful, The Man Within My Head will delight all who wonder what is in their own.

Ronald Wright's books include Time Among the Maya and the dystopian novel A Scientific Romance. The film Surviving Progress, based on his Short History of Progress, has just been released.

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