Novelist, essayist and travel writer Iyer (The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 2008, etc.) examines his life through the lens of his lifetime preoccupation with the writing of Graham Greene.
Greene's The Quiet American epitomizes for the author some of the major themes of his life: “foreignness, displacedness…innocence, chivalry.” Greene’s book, which takes place in Saigon during the buildup to the Vietnamese war, describes how the rivalry between a cynical British diplomat and the eponymous naïve American over a Vietnamese woman plays out on the larger stage of imperial politics. Iyer compares his own sense of divided identity to characters in Greene's book. “I went back and forth, in my life and then my head,” he writes, “between unquiet Englishmen who were often more compassionate than they let on and quiet Americans who were not quite so innocent as they liked to seem.” Though of Indian descent, Iyer was born in England, where he attended Eton and then Oxford. His father had left India and settled at Oxford, where he taught for eight years before moving to California to continue his brilliant academic career. The author is a wonderful wordsmith, and he provides engaging stories: about the fires that twice burned down his family's homes in Santa Barbara, landing in Sri Lanka in 2006 amid a violent upsurge while on assignment to write a travel piece on Marco Polo, his school days at Eton being trained to run an empire that no longer existed. Unfortunately, the disconnected chronology may leave many readers adrift.
Those unfamiliar with the writings of either Greene or Iyer may have trouble following the thread of this memoir.