Tag Archives: Pico Iyer

The Man Within My Head – Pico Iyer

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When I saw that Pico Iyer had written a self-examination of his long fascination with and links to Graham Greene, I knew I’d have to read it. Iyer’s work evokes Greene for me sometimes—the outsider’s adventures in extreme and theatrical cultures are the stuff of movie swashbuckling or gritty documentaries. But the exploits cast another kind of filter over the events that I knew as well. There is a sharp and bitter loneliness in not belonging. There are shadows, a knife-edge of introspection, a heightened awareness of what is—and what you are not. It’s easy to become someone else when you travel beyond your own social boundaries but, paradoxically, it’s impossible to avoid yourself.

The Man Within My Head covers territory not often encountered in travel writing. Iyer digs into his bifurcated childhood as an Indian boy in a British boarding school with regular trips home to Santa Barbara where his parents’ academic lives were immersed in the culture of the 60s and 70s. Pico Iyer’s boyhood public school experiences were similar to those of Greene—and his subsequent wandering around the globe duplicated patterns of Greene’s journeys as well.  Greene became for him a kind of surrogate father, a fictional counterpart to the real father, a distinguished Gandhi scholar, who regaled college students with his brilliant syntheses of East and West, classical and contemporary.

The book is not a linear narrative. Scenes emerge, fade, veer off, double back like hairpin-turn mountain roads—the kind with single lanes, sheer drops and white crosses marking fatalities. Trips to Ethiopia and Bolivia seem foolhardy with explicit danger. In Sri Lanka, an explosion of violence makes leaving the relative safety of a hotel room unappealing. In Cuba, the trips are research for an eventual novel, Cuba and the Night, that is very thinly fictional. Our Man in Havana places Greene in eerily similar circumstances. In fact, Greene’s books ghost through Iyer’s travels from Indo-China to the Caribbean. Greene’s spiritual dilemmas engage Iyer in an enduring argument, even as Iyer turns his back on his world and upbringing, searching for some spare truth in his own peregrinations.

A surprise in the recounting of the life of a writer I have always sought out (Iyer, although I could claim the same thing about Greene), Pico Iyer is a good friend of Bernie Diederich. I knew Bernie and worked with him in Miami—he is the grand old dean of Latin American and Caribbean coverage and has written brilliant books on many of the region’s legendary dictators—but, in all the time I knew him, I never suspected he was close to Iyer. A small world just got much smaller. Made me nostalgic for the days when any bag I carried contained a passport, a reporter’s notebook, a pair of Raybans and some cash for the currency exchange.

Iyer’s trek inside his own mind isn’t an extended essay and it isn’t a memoir—more like the puzzling of a Zen koan or a long meditation on a literary and personal influence. Graham Greene was, and remains, a strong presence for him. The Man Within My Head examines the convergence of their lives and work, pulls out pieces of Iyer’s life and holds them up to the light, reveals as much about the author as it does about the real and fictional fathers who haunt him.

The Man Within My Head   Pico Iyer | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Related post:  Cuba and the Night

Cuba and the Night — Pico Iyer

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I arrived in Miami, unwilling refugee from the North, just as waves of Cubans arrived in Miami, revolutionary casualties from an offshore island to the South. My best friend in Catholic school was the American daughter of an Italian-American mafia casino manager who fled the island once Batista fell. I shared an office in one of my first jobs in television with Carlos Prio’s daughter, a young woman raised to be a princess, who was privileged, delightful and sad.

On days when my father and I drifted in his small fishing boat in the Gulfstream, lines trailing behind us in the impossibly blue water, eyes squinting for a flash of silver that would signify dinner, we would talk about Cuba. Next week, next month, next year, we would cross the slender divide of the Florida Straits to fish for its legendary tarpon and marlin, as soon as the blockade lifted, when it was safe to go. I dreamed of Havana, exotic, seedy, tropical and haunted by Hemingway. My Spanish is still Miami street lingo and the Cuban accent has complicated my life more than once. We never made it to Havana. Castro soldiers on but my father is long gone, the Gulfstream polluted, that promise unfulfilled.

Pico Iyer has logged his time there, though. His novel, Cuba and the Night, was gathering dust on my shelves for years before I added it to the stack of books to read on this impossible book-a-day quest. Video Nights in Kathmandu was so much fun to saunter through that I thought this novel would be a jaunt across an island forbidden to me. When I realized it was more like Graham Greene does Horny in Havana, I set it aside. Now, with the dust blown off, it was ready to be tackled again.

Iyer captures a particular moment in the long, slow dissolution of Cuban society through a particular lens. The photographer who stars in this book is an itinerate shooter, a guy who keeps the world at a distance through the viewfinder of his camera. He’s the classic war photographer without a war, at loose ends, scraping the rough places for an adrenalin rush, wary of being pinned down. And he’s lonely. His life is running on empty and there are moments when that knowledge catches him like a big steel hook.

Richard is slick and practiced at working the local scenes to get the shots he needs, the booze that fuels his nights and the girls to share his bed. He has an eye for beauty shots amid poverty and irony amid political ideals that don’t pan out. He can spot a gorgeous hooker in drag a mile off. But he doesn’t see Lula coming and when he begins to wonder what she wants from him he’s already thrashing on the end of a line.

Iyer is a favorite writer of mine and his skills are in evidence in this cinematic glimpse of Cuba in decline, people finessing a bleak survival, rum, salsa and sequins standing in for dreams. Lula, or Lourdes, is unpredictable enough to keep you guessing, as she does Richard. But I could see the trajectory of this story from the opening sentence, a paragraph-long evocation of heat and night and sex for sale that paints the desperation of a country trapped in time and facing nothing much to relieve it. Not Hemingway with his loaded, macho haiku. But rich enough in detail to embroider loss with vivid threads of sights and sounds and the stink of the unwashed streets.

Normally, stories that hold no surprises don’t hold my attention. These characters were lifted from a life I knew—the photographers, the slick operators, the backstreet entrepreneurs, the desperate women, the hesitant voyeurs. But Iyer is an engaging writer and I don’t have the luxury of setting aside a book on a day when I’ve committed to finishing it, so I did. Could have written the ending without reading it. Sorry that a client called for a rush overnight rewrite when I still had 150 pages to go. Even sorrier that the hours of web sweatshop work to earn less than it takes to pay the bills were ahead of me. Rushed the ad copy, wrote the online crap, read until I saw double. Remembered the sun beating down as an open boat gently rocked on the ocean current and my father and I sat silent, each with our dreams of a Cuba we would never see.

Cuba and the Night: A Novel   Pico Iyer | First Vintage Contemporary Edition 1996