Pico Iyer on The Writers That Shadow Us


Iyer explores the ghost of Graham Greene @ Los Angeles Review of Books.

I had just arrived in Saigon — this was September 2004 — and, 15 hours out of sync after the long flight from California, I was wide-awake, adrenaline-quickened and eager to see everything as I hit the late-night streets. I dropped off my case at the Hotel Majestic and then began walking down Tu Do, or Freedom Street (the Rue Catinat, as it had been in French times, and now officially Dong Khoi, or Simultaneous Uprising Street).

The city had not changed much in the 13 years since I’d last been here, except that the sense of illicit energy, of movement, of underground whispering was more intense. “Layla” drifted up from an underground bar, and men along the sidewalks murmured promises of various exotic pleasures. A young woman sped up on a motorbike, took off her helmet and, shaking free her long hair, said, “We go my room?” Cyclo-drivers peddled slowly past, sometimes with a single woman in their seats, sometimes stopping to ask if I needed a friend.
I went into an internet café — they were everywhere, and everything was open, even after midnight — needing to transcribe this for someone. “I might almost be walking through Graham Greene’s Quiet American,” I wrote to a childhood friend who had become a novelist in a somewhat Greenian vein. “It’s uncanny. The Englishman Fowler and his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong might still be walking down the Rue Catinat.”
At that very moment a young woman came in, from the N.Y.-Saigon Bar next door, and took the stool next to mine. Business must be slow, I guessed, so she’d check her email for a while. She was long-legged, very young, and barely dressed. She logged onto her Hotmail account and I, shameless journalist, looked over to see what she was typing.
It was, of course, a love letter, from an admirer in Europe. “Dear Phuong,” it began, and then the changeless cadences of half-requited love came tumbling out.
She caught me looking at her, and stopped what she was doing to offer a smile, a silent invitation. Greene had met his real-life Phuong, I was later reminded, at the Hotel Majestic. Probably after midnight, just over 50 years before.
A similar thing had happened to me once in Santiago de Cuba. I stepped out of the little Casa Grande Hotel one morning and got into a car, only for a stranger to slip in, promising to show me around; reading Greene’s biography, a few years later, I found that he had stayed at the Casa Grande, 35 years before I did. When he walked out, and got into a car, a stranger slipped in and promised to show him around. I continued reading the biography and found him confessing to a Father Pilkington; my housemaster at school had been called Father Pilkington.
Not long thereafter, I began working on a book on the 14th Dalai Lama, and as I was sitting in Hiroshima one fall afternoon, listening to one of his general addresses, I realized that the perfect way of summarizing his teachings — for non-Buddhists at least — was by quoting Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” A little later, I was staying in a convent on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem and, needing something to read, picked up a book from the library shelves. It was Greene’s late novel Monsignor Quixote, and when I turned to the title page, there was an epigraph, from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

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