Monday, April 13, 2015

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Published 1973

In the introduction to my Vintage edition of The Honorary Consul, Nicholas Shakespeare reports that in conversation he held with Graham Greene, Greene identified The Honorary Consul as his favorite work. (He identified The Heart of the Matter as his best.) After having read the The Honorary Consul, I can understand his selection. Greene set it in early 1970s Argentina and Paraguay, and it’s populated with discrete, well-developed characters caught in the swirl of revolutionary-reactionary politics, low-level diplomacy, and personal issues of faith, betrayal, love, and redemption. 

The central characters are Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician and the son of a British national and Paraguayan mother, and Charley Fortnum, the “honorary consul” of the title. A small band of rebels kidnap Fortnum, having mistaken him for the intended target, the American ambassador. Dr. Plarr, a sometime friend and later rival to Fortnum, becomes drawn into the affair through his past in Paraguay. A friend from his youth, who is a priest turned rebel, embroils Plarr in the ill-fated scheme. The events unfold in the world of Latin American politics that often mixes repressive reaction, doomed rebellion, and dumb inertia. Greene, as usual, captures this stew of persons, motives, and events. He ranges from the conversations of the rather hapless gang of rebels to the apathy of the diplomats who discuss Fortnum’s fate. In places, Greene’s dialogues would have made an excellent play (as his stories often converted easily to screenplays).

Graham Greene (1904-1991)
But with Greene, unlike, for instance, Ambler or Le Carre, there’s something more. The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was dubbed the “God-intoxicated man” by later generations. If Spinoza deserves that appellation, then we should dub Greene “the God-intoxicated author”, for once again, issues of God, faith, betrayal, love, and justice come to the forefront in the dialogues of his characters. As in The Power and the Glory (another among Greene’s best works), a wayward priest is near the center of the action and acts as a foil to his friend Dr. Plarr. Sometimes Greene’s dialogues seem almost too much, so weighty, yet he makes them work with his characters and their plight. Even the cynical feel compelled to offer justifications that draw them into dialogues about issues of good and evil. I won’t go into the content of these dialogues (which provide a stark contrast to those of the higher-ups), but they bear the burden of their weight and yet still allow the plot to advance to its stunning conclusion.

I suppose that it takes a certain type of reader to enjoy Graham Greene, and I’m not sure why I find his work so intriguing. Perhaps it’s because his works often deal with those on the edge, such as Brits in far-flung lands, remnants of a once mighty empire which now, by Greene’s time, has mostly fallen apart, often mirroring the disarray in the lives of his characters. And his novels are set in places marked by terrible economic and political injustices, such as Paraguay and Argentine, Haiti, West Africa, and Viet Nam. Persons in these places often can’t lead quiet, unburdened lives. Choices are real and the sins that may seem inconsequential elsewhere take on more serious repercussions in these liminal worlds. To venture into a Greene novel, such as this one, is to venture into a world where good and evil do not hide from sight, but instead parade through life in a confusing array of lives and acts.

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