Travel writer Pico Iyer examines his own obsession with famed English novelist and fellow globetrotter Graham Greene.
Some travel to find a mystery within themselves, to mask what’s dull in their natures through encounters with strange towns, faces, and landscapes. But Pico Iyer, a novelist and a roving reporter born in England to Indian parents, feels himself to be transformed into a global cypher on his trips abroad. Both intoxicated and disoriented by the slip in his identity, Iyer, in his new memoir, The Man Within My Head, turns himself into an alter-ego of the famed English writer and globetrotter Graham Greene, in part to ground himself.
It’s a surprising choice, since Greene can be a grim companion. The brooding convert to Catholicism, born in 1904 and best known for his historic novel about persecuted priests in Mexico, “The Power and the Glory” (1940), treated travel as a form of self-punishment, creating characters who wore their displacement like a hair shirt. He himself went overseas to escape both England – where the likeness of his countrymen repelled him – and his romantic entanglements.
Despite such flights, he managed to steep himself in suffering; his fiction is filled with the sins of men in foreign lands, fleeing their damned existence.
“A lonely man,” Iyer writes of Greene’s stock hero, “finding himself in a turbulent place he doesn’t know quite what to do with – this is how his later fables begin, usually – takes on a pretty young local companion; she gives him calm and kindness, but her very sweetness reminds him of how unworthy he is, and his sense of protectiveness makes him want to defend her even from himself.”