Our Man in Gehenna
THE HOUND OF HEAVEN is still hellbent in pursuit of Graham Greene. That is not exactly news. And it is only a mixed blessing for Greene's characters, who in his new novel go through more than the usual torments that may or may not be signs of God's devastating love. But what an indulgence for the reader. Temporarily, at least, everybody can sidestep this fall's avalanche of novels—many of them apparently the work of rude boys rubbing sticks together to make fire—and enjoy a Promethean storyteller at work.
Greene's goings-on in THE HONORARY CONSUL at first seem highly local and temporary. The scene is South America in the '70s, and the situation is even closer to the daily headlines than was the case with THE COMEDIANS or THE QUIET AMERICAN . Some hapless Paraguayan guerrillas, stirred by General Stroessner's repressions, cross the border into northern Argentina. They aim to kidnap a visiting American ambassador and hold him against the release of ten political prisoners. But, as one character remarks, "nothing happens as we intend." Acting as his customary farce majeure, Greene has the revolutionaries mistakenly snatch and fruitlessly hold for political ransom poor Charley Fortnum, a gentle, sixtyish, befuddled and more than slightly sodden Englishman who serves as honorary British consul in an upcountry town that boasts only three British passports.
The holder of one of them is Dr. Eduardo Plarr. Plarr's British father has been held for years in a Paraguayan prison, and Plarr has not only become involved with the kidnapers but is the lover of Charley Fortnum's young wife. When Fortnum winds up a hostage, Plarr finds himself in one of those absurd and passionate plights that Greene is so skillful at convincing us are truthful metaphors for man's lot in life. "Let this comedy end as comedy," Plarr says in mock prayer. "None of us are suited for tragedy." But naturally, this wish is not granted.
Risks of Love
Greene readers, accustomed to the fact that nothing succeeds like failure, will soon realize that Charley Fortnum is one of the author's mysteriously blessed innocents. Plarr, a cool diagnostician and a rational man compulsively armed against the risks of love, just as clearly is Greene's familiar man in Gehenna. Convenient labels, though, do not destroy the extraordinary suspense and subtlety of the book.
At the very end THE HONORARY CONSUL thins and flattens down to a claptrap scene—barely suitable for framing on celluloid—in which Fortnum, Plarr and the kidnapers, led (yes) by a renegade priest named Léon, are beleaguered by police with searchlights and a helicopter. But much of the novel is as finely controlled and exquisitely melancholy as a Mozart symphony.
A splendid set of peripheral bit players first reach the reader, filtered through the ironic mind of Dr. Plarr. His own bereaved mother, living on sweet cakes and self-pity in Buenos Aires. Romantic Novelist Jorge Julio Saavedra, author of The Taciturn Heart, whose machismo-marinated works are timeless and thus lifeless as well. A British ambassador who begins to sense the sheer outrage of U.S. imperialism when he finds that the embassy cook automatically fries his eggs Yankee style. Fortnum's wife Clara, who is (yes) a graduate of Madame Sanchez's immaculate brothel and the object of Fortnum's genuine and touching concern and chivalry. "When you get to my age," Fortnum explains, "it's not a bad thing to feel you've made at least one person a little happier."
That is just the kind of simpleminded, sentimental statement that acutely embarrasses Plarr. He despises sentimentality, machismo, everything he takes to be sugar-coated human delusion, and all protestations of love or emotion, which are curable, as he puts it, "by means as simple as an orgasm or an eclair." Plarr works devotedly trying to cure the poor in the barrio, and his judicious view of the corruption of the world is presented with such apparent justice and restraint that the reader only gradually ceases to doubt his judgment — a doubt that Plarr at last experiences himself. His pure disgust at the physical side of life matches (and is perhaps intended to represent) the ancient Gnostic heresy that held Christ never to have been made flesh, and regarded the fleshly world as simply a dirty trick played by the devil on man and God.
Elsewhere Greene has pointed out what Charley Fortnum eventually demonstrates with his life, that the appropriate response to corruption is not cynicism but innocence. Not since THE END OF AN AFFAIR ("Dear God, you know I want your pain, but I don't want it now"), however, has Greene so baldly confronted the problem of God and evil, or the purpose, if any, of the horrors that God seems to visit alike upon those condemned to believe and those condemned to thirst after faith. "Free will was the excuse for everything," says Léon, the priest turned revolutionary, as he recalls his early training. "It was God's alibi. Evil was made by man or Satan. It was simple that way. But I couldn't believe in Satan. It was easier to believe that God was evil." Then, Léon offers an informal post-Freudian, post-Buchenwald process theology that assumes man can judge God's acts and know them evil, but asserts that God is both pitiable and believable precisely because he, like man, is not timeless, but a changeable part of a long and painful evolution.
Says Plarr: "It is much easier not to believe in God at all." Says Léon: "Are you sure?"
At the moment when both men die, THE HONORARY CONSUL provides only an equivocal reply. But Greene has been putting the question in sophisticated fiction for more than 40 years. The fact may justify a rather mean observation that in Greene's novels, as well as in his just republished stories (Collected Stories, Viking, $10), readers do not explore experience; they are simply reintroduced to Graham Greene. No one, on that account, should be guilty of the sin of ingratitude. In the King James Version of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount begins: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Poor in spirit? What do the words mean? One of many interpretations reads as follows: "How blessed are they who know their need of God." In a secular century no writer has dramatized that message so variously or so powerfully as Greene.