Interview: Pico Iyer

by Alexander Bisley / 17 January, 2013
Pico Iyer has much in common with the subject of his “counter-biography”, Graham Greene. And so, too, does Leonard Cohen, he argues.
Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer: folly to assume much knowledge about others. Photo by Derek Shapton/Bloomsbury.

'I think – maybe Graham Greene thought, too – that many of us are far too ready to impose judgments, ideological filler and prejudices on everything we see, and so deny them their richness and ambiguity, while denying ourselves the chance to really engage with them,” Pico Iyer tells me from Japan. We are discussing his lapidary “counter-biography”, The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me. “Whenever someone prattles on about how ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’ or any ‘ist’ Greene is, I wonder if they’re just trying to avoid really dealing with him, to put him into a box because a struggling, inconsistent, squalling reality is so much harder to contain and to describe.

“Greene, after all, works constantly to try to see his characters in terms much larger and more mysterious than their race, their colour or their gender. All his beings, The Quiet American’s Phuong not least, are souls at sea amidst the complexities of life, wavering, as we all do at times, between realism and romance.”

Words whirl forth from Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer. The writer of an elliptical biography on the Dalai Lama – “another great traveller, like Greene, trying to find how to act with conviction and conscience in a confused and divided world” – radiates calm.

His array of travel collections – including Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign (2004) and Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World (1993) – dazzled 2007’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Through several interviews with me (then until now), he has been an extraordinarily empathetic and considerate subject. “Pico Iyer is one of the most generous interviewees I’ve ever had,” Kim Hill once told me. “He’s a wonderful writer.”

In his new book, Iyer writes perceptively: “When I heard critics drone on about how Phuong in The Quiet American was ‘objectified,’ or two-dimensional, the product of a man’s boyish fantasy, I wondered how they could speak so coldly about the mysteries of human kindness and affection. A companion is someone who refuses to take the things we fret about too seriously – starting with ourselves – even though she cares for us entirely. Phuong offers the unquiet Englishman exactly the sense of peace and acceptance he longs for – and cannot find – in church.”

From his home in rural Nara, the multicultural Indian confides: “I also felt that it would be easy, if you’ve never been to Asia, to assume that Phuong was a stereotype or a two-dimensional portrait of a certain kind of Asian woman, submissive, adaptable and sweet; having been with Hiroko, my Japanese wife, for 25 years now, living in Japan, I can see that the way surface plays off depth, the importance of a role (which may have nothing to do with who you are), the relation of compliance to conquest are all much different from the way they are in the West.”

In Auckland, Iyer animatedly observed: “I try to bring back little time bombs from my travels so that people think differently, or at least are not so confident that they know everything.”

He elaborates now: “I prefer questions to answers, ambiguity to Hollywood happy endings and challenge to complacency. Thus I try hard, following Greene, not to show anyone as good or bad in my book – only a thousand shades of grey; not to try to take any fixed positions or ideological stances; and always to turn away from categories or clarities to a human reality that tends to be much more confounding and ever-shifting.

“I hope the reader may emerge as she would after a trip in Haiti or Bolivia, not necessarily comforted, not always smiling, but knowing she’s been somewhere that forces her to rethink a thing or two. I feel all of us are getting conditioned to taking things in online nowadays, in snippets, a few simple fragments at a time.

“So if a book can do anything, it’s to shock us out of those enclosures and try to bring us back to the much more confounding and necessary flow of real life.”

One senses Iyer’s strong internal life. “I suppose that the more external forms fade around us, the greater the necessity for creating inner rituals and forms, or else we will just be formless selves moving in a formless world and things will become very amoebal. Someone like me, who has had a lot of movement in his life, comes to a place like Japan to learn rootedness, continuity and, as you perfectly say, the wisdom of the seasons, which are essentially a lesson on changelessness and change.”

Japanese aesthetic influences The Man Within My Head. Eight years in the making, the book began as over 3000 pages, distilled down to 240. “My wish was to temper my teeming Indian mind with a bit of Japanese austerity and quiet. In any Japanese room, as in a haiku or a brush-and-ink painting, the central space is as empty as possible, with perhaps just one object on display so as to train the visitor in attention and to move her to find everything she wants and needs in just a single object. One thing seen well can take one much deeper than a thousand things seen glancingly. So I was trying to honour some of the principles of my neighbours here in Japan. My bad instinct as a writer has always been to try to squeeze in as much as possible; I thought there might be a value in trying to leave things out.”

The Man Within My Head begins with an epigraph: “What means the fact – which is so common, so universal – that some soul that has lost all hope for itself can inspire in another listening soul an infinite confidence in it, even while it is expressing its despair?” Is there a connection between Greene and Leonard Cohen, whom Iyer has written memorably about?

“The connections between him and Greene are so intense that I once had 20 pages, ultimately omitted, devoted to just that. Both men are clearly devoted for the duration to the spiritual life and to essential questions, but seem allergic to final answers, or settling to any fixity or category; both are clearly congregations of one, determined to take themselves away from the worlds they know (and could easily command) to places of challenge and even darkness. Both are known for their unease with commitments, for their mix of romanticism and realism, for their lifelong engagement with suffering, as it’s felt on the pulse.

“And both are always rigorously honest about their failures in the realms of commitment and fidelity, yet deeply gracious to and supportive of others. ‘My goal,’ Cohen once said, ‘is to write with compassion about deceit in the human heart.’ I can’t think of a better description of what Greene is doing. Both of them put honesty before comfort and questioning before belief.”

‘Rambo had conquered Asia,” began Iyer’s first book, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-so-Far East (1988). Like Greene, who was once the Spectator’s film critic, he’s written about cinema, including Monsoon Wedding and Kundun, and would love to write more. “I love directors such as Martin Scorsese for their deeply questioning, alert, even literary ability to put the essential issues of any life onto the screen in such palpitating ways. It’s no surprise that Scorsese – a former seminarian who once wanted to become a priest and who famously said, ‘You don’t work your sins out in church. You do so on the streets’ – once wanted to make a film of Greene’s Heart of the Matter.

“It wouldn’t be hard to see Scorsese as the direct heir to Greene, when it comes to Catholic self-questioning and unsparing moral realism. When once I did an onstage conversation with Scorsese – one of the most humble and self-questioning and impressive people I’ve met – all we talked about was religion and the Greeneian questions, much to his delight, I think.”

Terrence Malick also haunts Iyer. “I sometimes tell myself all my writing is a feeble attempt to echo the vision of Malick, whose Days of Heaven, seen 33 years ago, remains the great life-changing artwork of my time. I love the way that very accomplished professional philosopher and reader of everything from the Bible to Huck Finn was able to tell so straight a story, and to distil his many ideas into images that affect us in some post-verbal way, entirely sensually. As a writer, I have to take the too many ideas swarming around my head and somehow distil them.”

Other writers occupying Iyer’s mind range from Philip Roth (“You’re absolutely right that both Roth and Greene seem to hold, with glee and mischief and fury, that a too-simple morality can be as dangerous as amorality or even immorality”) to Ralph Waldo Emerson (in The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls & the Search for Home [2000]), via his Oxford philosopher father, Raghavan, and Zadie Smith (“her Shakespearean gift for seeing every situation through the eyes of all the people in it”).

Is a follow-up to The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (1991) next? “Perhaps. But I may end up never writing it. I have more than 1000 pages of notes accumulated over my many years of living in Japan, but sometimes the more you know of a place or person, the less you’re interested in saying anything about it. The deepest relationships mock words, I sometimes feel, and underline their redundancy.

“So it was much easier to write about my Japanese sweetheart and theThe Man Within My Headcountry that I love after one year of their acquaintance than after a quarter of a century. I’ll only persevere with that book if I can make its theme fresh and new to me, come up with a sense of discovery.”

In one of The Man Within My Head’s most arresting images, Iyer writes about a revelation at age 33. “By the time the Californian wildfire had reduced our house and everything in it to rubble, I had decided to make my sense of belonging truly internal and go to the most clarifying society I knew, Japan.” Still? “Still, and always.”

Recently, at her 80th birthday party in California, Iyer asked his mother, Nandini, what she’d learnt in 80 years. “You can never know another person,” the woman who introduced him to Greene replied. Iyer shares with me his delight. “You can know the self a little, Greene suggests, and you can and perhaps must try to know the world. But it’s folly to assume you know very much about another person. It was a lovely reminder of the virtue of not presuming too much.”


Listener Book Club

Back after its summer break, the Listener Book Club resumes activities on January 31 with a month-long discussion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Penguin English Library, $12.99) to mark the 200th anniversary of its first publication. Kicking off the month will be an interview with Paula Byrne, author of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (Fourth Estate, $39.99).
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