The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer, Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

I came across Pico Iyer while reading and reviewing Ronald Wright’s Time Among the Maya, published by ELAND Press, as he wrote the introduction. His overview was insightful and concise, and I learned he’d written over 50 such openings. Initial research revealed that he was a revered travel writer and that he’d written a book about his fascination with one of my favorite writers, Graham Greene.

The book is a meditation about Graham, as well as the author. Greene is the virtual man in Iyer’s head, raising the question, what causes a particular writer to resonate in our souls? I’d grappled with this question regarding the iconic writer Moritz Thomsen. I explored my fascination with his life and writing in an essay in which I followed him on a trip from the Pacific coast of Ecuador to the deepest reaches of the Amazon River in Brazil entitled, “The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey of Two Writers.”

A Los Angeles Review of Books provides the most lyrical description of this book, “Part memoir, part literary excavation, part travelogue, and existential inquiry, it’s a story about finding one’s voice as a writer and one’s place in the world (or lack of place).”

In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer unravels the mysterious closeness he has always felt with the English writer Graham Greene; he examines Greene’s obsessions and his elusiveness and traces some of his mysterious influences.  Iyer begins by following Greene’s trail from his first novel, The Man Within, to such later classics as The Quiet American and begins to unpack all he has in common with Greene: an English public school education, a lifelong restlessness, and refusal to make a home anywhere, a fascination with the complications of faith. The deeper Iyer plunges into their haunted kinship, the more he begins to wonder whether the man within his head is not Greene, but his father or perhaps some more shadowy aspect of himself.


The author would follow Greene’s footsteps across the globe from Cuba to Sri Lanka, including stopovers to the heights of Bolivia. After high school, the author “bumped across Central and South America on buses, taking in the tough and unaccountable world that school had trained us for….” It was Bolivia that he remembered twenty years later, as I also did, since I’d made a similar trek, which included Bolivia “..the bowler-hatted women laboring up the steep streets and near the cathedral, unsold goods slung over their shoulders; the billowing, snow-white clouds that looked fantastical in skies as sharp as those of Lhasa; the square-headed statues in the Altiplano, barely excavated in centuries.”

While reading the book, I learned that the author ran into some of my favorite writers who knew Greene, although in one case, Iyer only referred to him as “my friend Paul…” with whom he sipped tea after lunch on “an expansive estate in Hawaii” where geese clucked along the path. In the bungalow “where Paul wrote, fierce tribal masks from Angola and the Pacific Islands grinned down unnervingly.” He goes on to reveal that Greene had offered words of public praise for Paul’s first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, “perhaps because he saw strong echoes in it of his early book and first commercial success, Stamboul Train….”

In a conversation between Paul and Graham Greene about infidelity, Paul says he had an image of Green as a “power figure, a Shaman” and revealed some interesting characteristics of Greene, “…he didn’t type, he didn’t drive, he couldn’t boil an egg.”

The author provided one final piece of information that confirmed my suspicion that his friend was Paul Theroux with a quote that tied my favorite authors, Theroux, Greene, and Moritz Thomsen. The connection was to one of Theroux’s novels, Picture Palace, in which an imaginary Maud Pratt is talking to an aging Graham Greene:

“I’m going to wind it up. Call it a day.”

“Whatever for?”

“I’m too old to travel, for one thing.”

“Which Frenchman said, ‘Travel is the saddest of the pleasures?’”

“It gave me eyes.”

This last quote inspired the title of Moritz Thomsen’s My Saddest Pleasure. (Theroux met Thomsen in Ecuador twice in the late seventies and considered him a friend). And that would inspire the title for my most recent book, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, which contained my travel “horror stories.”

For Iyer, Greene was his adopted father, although the two never met. Iyer didn’t need Green’s manuscripts or letters in research libraries; “…I made no conscious effort to track down those who’d known him. He lived vividly enough inside me, in some more shadowy place….” The author sums up his virtual relationship with Greene in the book’s last paragraph as follows, “…But with Greene, there’d be no need of words at all. He knew me better than I did myself. I knew him better than I knew Louis or my father or many of the people closest to me, when it came to his secrets, his sins, his most intimate needs….” All of these recall Donna Seaman’s words: “A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the world.”

The Author: Pico Iyer was born in Oxford, England–to parents from India–raised in California, and educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. Since 1987, he has been based in Western Japan, traveling everywhere from Bhutan to Easter Island, North Korea, to Los Angeles airport. Apart from the two novels and ten works of non-fiction he has published, he has written introductions to more than fifty other books, screenplays, librettos, and many liner notes for Leonard Cohen. He regularly speaks everywhere, from West Point to Davos and Shanghai to Bogota, and between 2013 and 2016, he delivered three talks for

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0050DIWD4
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Vintage (January 3, 2012)
  • Publication date ‏ : ‎ January 3, 2012
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 2620 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Not Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Sticky notes ‏ : ‎ On Kindle Scribe
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 255 pages
  • Best Sellers Rank: #632,497 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)

 The Reviewer

Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world.

He’s a contributing writer for The Authors Show, Wanderlust Journal, Revue Magazine, and the Literary Traveler. His column, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why,” is part of the Arizona Authors Association newsletter. His first book is Different Latitudes: My Life of the Peace Corps and Beyond.  His latest book, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, is now available on His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can find over 65 book reviews and 25 of his articles at


Posted in Book Reviews: Latin America, Book Reviews: Non-fiction, Book Reviews: Travel and tagged , , , , , , .