Pico Iyer’s book is difficult to review because it’s difficult to classify. It’s part memoir, part literary biography and criticism, and part travel book. Indeed, there seems to be two men inside Iyer’s head, the novelist Graham Greene and Iyer’s father. The book traces its course through various episodes of Iyer’s diverse life. Iyer is the son of Indians who emigrated to the U.K. and then, in the 1960s, to southern California. Iyer returned to England for schooling while his parents remained in California, thus requiring Iyer to ferry back and forth across the continents to experience both school and family. This type of background, along with the fact that his father was an academic and one well-versed and enthusiastic about the classics, made for an interesting background for young Pico (named, by the way, after the great Italian humanist, Pico della Mirandola).
But during all of this, and well into the present, the singular figure of Graham Greene, the novelist and the man, became the “man within my head”. Perhaps their shared travels and uncertainties lead to this attraction, although as someone who’s been quite rooted his whole life, I, too, find Greene’s work quite fascinating. Greene, if you’re not acquainted with him, is the British novelist who often sets his novels in far-off locales, such as Haiti, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and the like, and then populates the novel with complex, often quite psychologically tortured characters. Greene was not afraid to delve into issues of God, belief, and guilt, as well as all manner of sin and betrayal. And Greene himself proves quite a convoluted and complex character, at once cold and kind, approachable and lonely.
I recommend this book to anyone who’s read Greene’s work or whose seen the movies that do some justice to his work, like The Third Man (a great film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton—and did you know that in the short story, Harry Lime was a Catholic?), The Fallen Idol (another Carol Reed film), and The Comedians (Liz and Dick at their best along with a fine cast). For established Greene fans, this would prove a worthwhile read. As Iyer has written a lot of other work that I’ve not read, I can’t say how this fits, but it’s interesting, instructive, and like all of the characters in the book, very elusive.