I don’t read non-fiction works that well. No, I’m not saying I’ve something against them; just that, as a rule, I tend to enjoy fiction more. But once in a while, I do seem to pick up non-fiction books, and I’ve not been disappointed by them, not recently, that is. From Zadie Smith (Changing My Mind), to V. S. Naipaul (A Writer’s People), to David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays). But you see, I loved them already, before reading their non-fiction (except for Naipaul, whose India trilogy I had already read before reading his fiction), as these are all heavyweights as fiction writers, too.
Then again Pico Iyer had me in very first few words of a piece I had read long back, in Time Magazine (August, 2015). That lyrical piece, Experiment In Exile , about Tibetans in exile finding a home away from home, in Dharmashala (Himachal Pradesh) made me take notice of Pico Iyer, and I bookmarked him for a later time. The time didn’t come for almost a decade!
When I chanced upon his book, The Man Within My Head, browsing the shelves in British Council Library, I picked it up right away — mainly because writers writing about writers can be very interesting. And when you already have read a bit of that writer (Graham Greene in this case), it could be so much more interesting.
Turned out, I was not wrong.
In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer attempts something very difficult, and almost manages it! That too, with amazing style and substance. On one hand it’s just a book about Graham Greene, the author (as his chosen father). But like all good non-fiction, it is about a lot more than that. What you get, for the price of one, is a potpourri of thoughts on sons, fathers, inheritances (not the mundane kinds), spirituality, belief (or the lack of it) in God, plus a good dose of travel writing (as if the rest was not plenty enough)!
And while he tries to connect the dots — experiences, characters, events, thought patterns — between Greene and himself, and punctuates it with stories of his father, and growing up/living in two diametrically opposite words (actually two sets of them, first England and California, and then Japan and California), somewhere the magic happens, and it is Pico Iyer who is in your head, with Greene, and characters from Greene’s novels, and Iyer’s parents, and his friend. Iyer writes with such fluidity, such total mastery of the form, that he had me enthralled, just like before, reading that essay in Time.
Not the least of the reasons, for that enthrallment, are the insights into Graham Greene, an author that I have always wanted to read more of, but always found heartbreaking to read — the impending (very personal) doom in his books is all too pervading to be proved wrong. Still, reading Iyer talk about Greene made me want to pick him up again. And I finished reading The Quiet American, taking a break from Iyer’s book. And it was as if I was reading an author I knew a lot about, when in reality I had read only two of his books, that too a few years back.
This is a book worth reading for so many reasons. The lyricism of the prose is just one of them.
This for instance (bold emphasis mine):
All those Marcus Aurelius sentences we’d had to read and memorize, all the lines from Hecuba we’d had to recite in Greek were telling us that it wasn’t the world and its trials and sufferings that made us, but our response to them. The fault was never in our stars, or even our fathers.
My recommendation: if you’re anything like me (and I understand that’s not something you’d want to publicize), please read …
: Experiment in Exile is no longer freely available on Time (needs Log In as subscriber), however, you can read it here. Not sure if that’s a full version, though.