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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Man Within My Head’

THE MAN WITHIN MY HEAD
By Pico Iyer
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95,256 pages

''Greeneland" describes both the seedy locales where Graham Greene set many of his novels and the state of mind of many of his heroes: doubting, undeceived,living in foreign places in an eternal maybe. Of his contemporaries, George Orwell is the only other writer who contributed his name to the language. The adjective Orwellian - denoting brutal, intrusive and manipulative power - is specific. It therefore lacks the imaginative appeal of Greeneland, a terra cognita to all admirers of Greene's work, and to none more so than Pico Iyer.

In his new book, "The Man Within My Head," Mr. Iyer describes Greene as constantly in his mind as a kind of imaginative touchstone. But why? He wouldn't have chosen Greene: "He was never a writer I dreamed of becoming," he writes. "If anything ... he was a part of all that I was trying to put behind me."

Mr. Iyer (born in 1957) is a couple generations younger than Greene (born in 1904), but they share much in common. They were both educated in the British public (i.e. private) school system, and Mr. Iyer notes the way it fosters the skills needed to go out into the world - even in these empireless days - rather than the talents useful for a settled family life.

Mr. Iyer's family is Indian, but he was born in Oxford, and when he was 8, his parents moved to California. He chose to remain as a boarder at his Oxford school and later at Eton, moving back and forth between England and California several times a year. Now a resident of Japan, he lives in a society in which he can never be an insider, and for him, that is comfortable - easier than accepting the definitions that living in England or America or India would impose.

Graham Greene was born and raised in England of English parents, but like Mr. Iyer, he always preferred the periphery to the center. After boarding school and Oxford, he chose to get himself to the edgier places of the world: Liberia and revolutionary Mexico in the 1930s, Sierra Leone during World War II, Vietnam before the Americans arrived and then to Cuba, Haiti and Argentina. Later he lived in Antibes on the Mediterranean coast of France, within sight of the villa owned by Somerset Maugham, a writer whom Mr. Iyer identifies as one of Greene's literary precursors.

Greene himself gave Henry James that role, focusing on the way he ferreted out cynicism and cruelty among the grandest of people and places rather than on his famed fascination with American innocence. Greene also edged to the periphery of English life when he became a Roman Catholic in order to marry, and then rapidly steered himself to the periphery of Catholic life when he asserted that belief was irrational and called himself a Catholic atheist. Though an excellent and generous friend to many people, and devoted to a number of women, he lived alone but far from isolated from the world. He had a sharp eye for political hypocrisy and corruption and no hesitation in going after it.

Mr. Iyer admires all of these characteristics, and the novels too, especially "The Quiet American," which tells such a compelling tale of historic disaster and psychological ambivalences. In the second half of "The Man Within My Head," he answers the question he poses in the first half. Why Greene? Why not some other author, perhaps one such as Aldous Huxley, who shared his experience of California?

His answer focuses on the ways that Greene's characters - Pyle and Fowler in "The Quiet American," for example - have a kind of father-and-son relationship to each other. This analysis of the often mysterious sources of literary and personal inspiration has the appeal of late-night conversations over a bottle of wine: fascinating at the time, but on reflection perhaps a just a little trite.

Nonetheless, Pico Iyer is usually an interesting companion. His book ranges over his experiences at school in England, the sight of the family home burning on a California hillside, travels in South America, friendships, interests, music and always intelligent discussions of literature. At his best, he re-creates scenes with great precision. The forest fires of California come alive, as do the streets of La Paz, Mexico, with bowler-hatted indigenes and gun-slung narcos. So does the frightening car ride at 12, 000 feet up in the Andes that ends - unsurprisingly - in a crash.

Mr. Iyer also can suggest character. His father, at first a little hazy, finally emerges in vivid color and detail. Other people, such as the incompetent radiographer in a remote Bolivian hospital, jump onto the page in deft impressionistic strokes.

Greene, though, remains a rather shadowy figure. Like all the denizens of Greeneland, he is a master of displacedness, real yet also shadowy, full of ideas, actions and quirks, yet veiled in ambivalences. He is a figure to ponder but not quite to know. And that's part of the magic that spirits him into the heads of his aficionados, and underpins Pico Iyer's mixture of personal memoir and literary homage. Greenelanders may well be fascinated; others may be mystified.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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