The parents we never quite know
In the Guardian, I recently reviewed Pico Iyer’s marvellous The Man Within My Head. Below, my original, full review, which was edited for space constraints in publication:
Not a long way into The Man Within, Grahame Greene’s first published novel, the smuggler Francis Andrews stands in a graveyard and thinks of his father. On an ordinary day, his father had once visited him in school, unexpectedly and for all of a few minutes, striding across the gravel playground to inquire if Andrews was happy. Andrews answered, he recalls, with “artificial pleasure” and “artificial neatness.” He did not know then “what kept his father away from home for short and frequent periods of blessed peace. He never knew the cause of that particular unfortunate visit.” His father is – all fathers are – ultimately unknowable, and we wrestle with their stubborn ghosts, as Andrews does, until the final pages of our novels.
But the origin of the kinship between father and son is, at least, well known to us – seeded, in fact, into our very existence. In The Man Within My Head – whose original subtitle promised a discussion of “the Parents We Never Quite Know” – Pico Iyer adopts Greene as an alternate paternal figure, one who has haunted and mirrored his life and his sensibilities. Apart from being confounded by Greene as sons routinely are by fathers, Iyer must also work through the additional perplexing question of why he has “enlisted this stranger…as a counterfather,” as he said in an interview in February. Greene is, Iyer writes, one of a host of shadow associates, “presences we’ve never chosen and [who], like many of our loves or compulsions, blur the lines inside us by living beyond our explanations.”
This relationship is only partly circumstantial; the lives of Iyer and Greene collided into each other infrequently, like timid dodgem cars. Iyer was born in the same Oxford hospital as Greene’s daughter, and he spent his early years on a street a short walk from Greene’s Woodstock Road home. Both men attended English boarding schools suffused with Greek verbs and loneliness and regimented pleasures, their atmospheres so identical that they seemed to have been sliced out of some larger pie of pedagogy. During his career, Iyer has travelled through many of the geographies in Greene’s books: Mexico, Cuba, Vietnam, Haiti. He had friends who knew Greene well, but he never sought to meet his counterfather. Only twice does he even write to Greene’s Antibes address – first as a frenetic confessional, then as an offer to interview him for Time magazine. Greene declined politely, and ten months later, he passed away.
In his guise of travel writer, Iyer has really been our most elegant poet of dislocation. Ever since Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1988, he has not so much travelled as wrenched himself from place to place; he has found, with uncanny knack, kindred disquieted souls in disquieting locations – apartments; neighbourhoods; even whole cities – all out of joint with their space and time. Other travel writers attempt to feel at home in the world; Iyer thrives on alienation, because it is the facets of this alienation that make up his origin and his destination, his means of transport and his ports of transit. His kinship with Greene, whom he calls “the patron saint of the foreigner alone,” has already been implicit in his previous books; Iyer has always been Fowler in Saigon, or Wormold in Havana, or Plarr in Corrientes, or any one of Greene’s other unsettled Englishmen abroad.
In turn, Iyer discovers that Greene has foretold, in his novels and non-fiction, much of Iyer’s world; he has anticipated the thoughts Iyer will have, the people he will meet, and the places he will visit. When Iyer is in an Internet café in Saigon, a woman sits at an adjacent terminal and reads a love letter from a foreign admirer; she is named Phuong, as is the woman who loves and leaves Fowler in The Quiet American. After a car accident in Bolivia, Iyer and a friend are rescued by the Bishop of Potosí, who happens to be driving by. (“Hadn’t Greene written about some bishop of San Luis Potosí in The Lawless Roads?”) On a vacation with his mother on Easter Island, Iyer spends an afternoon writing a story about an eccentric priest in the tropics; had his mother seen the story, Iyer is sure, she would have remarked: “[I]sn’t this just a version of Graham Greene?”
This is, of course, a literary bond – the dense and fraught relationship that can grow, almost unbidden, between reader and writer – but it is not just that. (Iyer has said that the subject of this book might also have been Leonard Cohen, another bard of solitude and sadness.) Through Greene’s writing, Iyer accesses Greene himself, delivering to us a thoughtful and exquisitely rendered portrait of his character. Greene was a man riven by doubt, unable to give himself entirely to a person or to a faith – even as he knew that to refrain from such commitment was no way to live. Greene spent, Iyer writes, “his whole life searching for a haven that, were he to find it, he would only exile himself from or spoil, and then begin the search again.” In his bevelled, beautiful prose, Iyer negotiates these ideas – of detachment, of faith, of home and belonging, of love, of displacement – turning them over and over like river pebbles, puzzling over their place in his own life, thinking them through. This is, in a way, the point: When his wife Hiroko asked him why he wanted to spend so much time with Greene, Iyer told her: It’s a way of working things out, as I couldn’t otherwise.”
Not a long way into The Man Within My Head, Iyer writes: “Greene’s books are nearly all haunted by fathers.” On the edges of this communion with Greene hovers Iyer’s counter-counterfather – his own father, Raghavan Iyer, a teacher in California and “a mystery man I could never solve.” In the person of Raghavan Iyer comes the most dramatic convergence of Iyer’s real life and his life as shadowed by Greene; the father’s last real phone call to the son consisted of an answering-machine message wracked with sobs, left in response to a Time essay by Iyer on Greene. Greene’s great gift and his fount of despair, Iyer had written in that piece, was the ability to “see the folly and frailty of everyone around him.” Nothing changes a son as much as seeing the folly and the frailty of a father – or of a counterfather, or even, inescapably, given Greene’s agonised Catholicism, of the Father. To recognise your father’s fallibility is to recognise your own – and to feel, for the first time, truly bereft in the universe. One may have outgrown one’s own father, as Greene once told an interviewer, but one still likes to feel there’s somebody there.