Travel literature review: The Man Within My Head

The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

I can remember picking up Pico Iyer’s first travel offering, Video Night in Kathmandu,  from a stall on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, back in the glory days of Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail. The book had generated a buzz amongst travellers who saw Iyer, rightly or wrongly, as one of their own, traipsing the same ground, living the same dream. I eagerly devoured the book as I bludgeoned my way north from Xishuangbanna to Beijing and the tattered copy changed hands numerous times.

In Pakistan, I stayed with Iyer through the alluring Cuba and the Night and later, in New Zealand, with the deeply personal The Lady and the Monk, watching his prose mature, his insights become more fine-tuned. As ever, he proved not only a diligent observer, but a thoughtful introspect, always ready to question his own motives, yet somehow retaining a sense of humour, an element of rock’n’roll larrikinism.

In The Man Within My Head Iyer launches a discussion about his literary hero, English novelist Graham Greene, yet finds, all too soon, his own past dragged into the story as he glimpses (seizes?) parallels in their upbringings. Yet Iyer’s under no illusions. As he dissects such classics as The Quiet American (US meddling in Vietnam), The Comedians (set in Haiti) and The Honorary Consul (about an Argentinian brothel), he’s quick to point out where he and Greene diverge. Greene, after all, had a reputation as a cynical, surly traveller (try The Lawless Roads about his Mexican travels, or Journey Without Maps where he blunders about in Sierra Leone), whereas travel for Iyer is an essential part of his DNA, and he readily injects episodes from Bhutan, Bolivia, Santa Barbara and Sri Lanka as a voyage interlude.

Greene’s great skill was in showing the humanity of his gloomy characters, who, often doomed to their fates and wallowing in self-doubt, somehow rise above their own dubious activities to surprise everyone, including themselves. Iyer, ever the humanist himself, as he digs deeper, instead of finding the definitive Greene, begins to unearth his own father. By introducing him to the narrative, he raises more questions in his own head than he answers. What is it to be a man? What is it to be a son?

This is a masterful work, Iyer’s best to date. I wander over to my own bookshelf and pull out a battered first edition of The Quiet American. Inside the cover is my own father’s name.

Steve Waters works in LP’s Melbourne office and read The Man Within My Head via a head-torch in a tent in Western Australia’s Kimberley.

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