If Greene’s tales buy into the concept of original sin, he is tender to characters who judge and condemn themselves. Perhaps that’s why Iyer, like an antihero from Greene’s work, cops a guilty stance. Often, he overestimates his role in the human dramas of the Third World. In Vietnam, he fancies himself the imagined savior of a pert prostitute ignoring him in an Internet cafe. In Bolivia, he worries that the middle-aged woman doubling as his translator and guide wants to turn their workday into a night in his hotel bed.
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. His gift lies in his ability to break through the sensory overload of an alien place, where the scents and sights can overwhelm those unused to them. In the midst of Babble, Iyer finds a writerly quiet, then transmits back a few internal sounds that respond to and are at home with the unfamiliar.
Still, a whiff of shame marks his comings and goings. To be chronically in transit suggests an evasion of one’s life, alongside an awareness, he writes, of “the cost of watching from the sidelines.” Recalling a winter trip that he took to Bhutan, with only a novel by Greene along for warmth, he asks, “Why was I here, in a country with which I had no connection when I could be somewhere that had real stakes for me? Why was I not with my new love, Hiroko, in Japan, instead of collecting impressions of a place that ultimately meant little to me?”