Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

"I believe in the evil of God," Father Rivas said, "but I believe in His goodness too.  He made us in His image--that is the old legend.  Eduardo, you know well how many truths in medicine lay in old legends.  It was not a modern laboratory which first discovered the use of a snake's venom.  And old women used the mold on overripe oranges long before penicillin.  So I too believe in an old legend which is almost forgotten.  He made us in His image--and so our evil is His evil too.  How could I love God if he were not like me?"

Sometimes reading a Graham Greene novel is like ordering the newest item at Taco Bell.  It's new all right, but it's mostly the same raw materials--beans, cheese, tortilla, meat--combined in a new shape.  In The Honorary Consul, it's easy to recognize some of Greene's hallmarks, his beans and cheese.  The protagonist is once again a world-weary cynic and agnostic.  Like in The Quiet American, his foil is a bumbling civil servant.  This time it's Charley Fortnum, the alcoholic honorary consul for the UK in a small Argentinian town, who gets kidnapped by Paraguayan revolutionaries thinking they've nabbed the American ambassador.  And then of course there's the ex-priest, the conflicted man of God, who over the course of the book moves backwards into his own past and rediscovers his religion.

The priest is a man named Father Rivas, who left the cloth to marry and join up with the revolutionaries.  The cynic in The Honorary Consul is Eduardo Plarr, an Anglo-Argentinian doctor whose relationship with Fortnum and the kidnappers both puts him in the middle of the botched kidnapping.  He's also, of course, sleeping with Fortnum's wife, an ex-prostitute:

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains?  One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself--everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger.

I don't mean to disparage Greene's books, which often get a lot of mileage out of a very narrow set of themes and situations.  There's something comforting about their familiarity.  (Of course, it's when he breaks those molds that his books are most valuable, like The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock.)  But The Honorary Consul never finds a way to rise above that narrow set, like The Quiet American does.  It has much to say on the nature of God and the religious life--like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, we get to watch the hapless Rivas dragged back into the life of the priest he thought he'd left behind.  And the character of Fortnum is a good and vivid one, a man who's alcoholism is self-destructive and whose life is small, but who is ennobled by the love he bears his wife.

Like those other books, it's a thriller as much as it is a religious meditation.  The kidnappers try to do their best with the honorary consul, whom they want to ransom in exchange for the release of political prisoners in Paraguay, but the Paraguayans can't understand the vast difference between the office of consul and the honorary title, which makes Fortnum such a small fish that no one--the US, the UK, or Argentina--is willing to do anything to save his life.  Everyone ends up trapped: the kidnappers, who never thought they'd have to kill anyone; Plarr, who's caught between trying to save Fortnum and bedding his wife; and of course Fortnum, who's literally trapped.  The final section of the novel, where all parties are sitting in their hut in the barrio waiting nervously for the deadline to come, is talky and slow, but manages to capture something essential to Greene's worldview: the ineluctable cruelness of international politics, and the heavy hand exerted by God.

No comments: