four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
57-Mar-Apr-2012
By: 
Pico Iyer
user_rating: 
0

A-The-Man-Within-My-HeadAnglo-Indian essayist, novelist, and world traveler Pico Iyer has written several works of nonfiction, including Video Night in Kathmandu and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East (1988) and The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008). His essays have appeared in Time, Harper's, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times.

The Topic: In his latest book, Iyer attempts to understand his lifelong obsession with British novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991). As Iyer treks across the globe in Greene's footsteps--from Bolivia to Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Easter Island--he filters his experiences through the lens of Greene's fiction, as if characters and events had emerged from Greene's novels. He also reflects on his own life--his school days in England, his career, his marriage, and the death of his father, philosopher Raghavan Iyer--and draws comparisons with that of Greene in an attempt to understand the "adopted father" he never met. (Iyer once sent a letter to Greene requesting an interview but was politely refused.) A survey of Greene's literary legacy rounds out this deeply personal work.
Knopf. 256 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307267610

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"The Man Within My Head (a nod to The Man Within, Greene's first published novel) is patchwork rather than a narrative, proceeding through a series of dreamlike connections as Iyer, alone in a hotel room, or a bar in Saigon, or on a perilous mountain road after a car smash in Bolivia, finds himself meeting characters and walking through plots and coincidences that Greene might have invented years before. ... The Man Within My Head is likewise a purging, literary criticism disguised as autobiography, a book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer's readers have come to expect." Richard Rayner

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"Iyer writes that he was ‘never much interested in Greene the man of politics or Greene the Catholic, Greene the rumored spy' because in his estimation Greene was not ‘much interested' in such questions himself: ‘all were mere symptoms of some more fundamental trembling.' Diagnosing this trembling, in Greene and in himself, is the work of this contemplative, idiosyncratic book, a kind of side trip that diverges from the routes of Iyer's usual writing." Liesl Schillinger

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars"What really makes it personal is the extent to which Iyer--a writer in his way as enigmatic as Greene and perhaps, before this book, at any rate, even shyer about self-revelation--exposes himself as never before. ... For those who are fascinated with the man Iyer quotes Kingsley Amis as calling ‘Grim Grin' and are steady visitors to that strange place known as ‘Greeneland,' The Man Within My Head is a must-read book." Martin Rubin

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars"The book is like a maze where your walking keeps bringing you back to the center: Mr. Iyer's determination to understand the fascination Greene exerts on him. ... What gives the book its peculiar distinction is the range of Mr. Iyer's sympathies--for a diversity of cultures, for varieties of religious belief and for opposed political positions--and his luminous intelligence." Allan Massie

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars"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." Susan Comninos

Critical Summary

Although The Man Within My Head centers on Graham Greene, Iyer is largely uninterested in the biographical details of Greene's life, which, the critics agreed, makes the book difficult to classify: "part memoir, part travelogue, part ... what?" asks the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, as Iyer meanders through his memories, Greene's fiction, and the world at large, his understanding and keen powers of observation offer compelling insight into all three--"a fascinating and also a very worthwhile experience," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Readers unfamiliar with Greene and his fiction may struggle with The Man Within My Head, but initiates with dog-eared copies of The Quiet American and The End of the Affair will find it a "contemplative, idiosyncratic book" (New York Times Book Review).