“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.”
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.