Trust the tale and not the teller.
d. h. lawrence
How can one tell the dancer from the dance?
w. b. yeats
Graham Greene is a marvel. As long ago as 1966, on the publication of The Comedians, Evelyn Waugh could write: “What staying power you have. It might have been written thirty years ago and could be by no one but you.” Now eighty-five and approaching the inevitable end of an extraordinarily long and productive career, Greene is still a presence on our cultural scene. He can still command attention, still stir the blood and raise the hackles. However, although Greene is the most complete man of letters this century has seen, and the subject of what promises to be one of the most massive biographies of our time (Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. I 1904-1939, Viking, 1989), his reputation has yet to achieve a settled status. His works of the past decade are not likely to change the situation, nor are the political judgments he has made during that time.
The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene (1981) [translated from L’Autre et son double], Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (1980), Monsignor Quixote (1982), Getting to Know the General (1984), and The Captain and the Enemy (1988) all received upon publication the praise that is bestowed almost ritualistically upon each new work of Greene’s. However, they also revived and strengthened some of the most severe and telling criticism that has been directed at the man and his work, leading David Pryce-Jones, who had written a small, favorable book on Greene twenty-five years earlier, to write a strangely agitated update that dismissed Greene’s work as already a “period curiosity.” In addition, during the eighties this artist provocateur has paid visits to the Soviet Union during which he made remarks that cross the boundaries of the questionable into the land of dissembling.
Is this recent Greene different from the familiar figure we have come to know over the years, or has there been in him a change, either a further development or a diminishment of powers? Any answer to that question requires a backward glance.
It is easy to lay out the difficulties Greene presents to the critic attempting to come to terms with his work. There is, first, the sheer abundance and range of his output. His more than fifty books include novels, plays, film scripts, short stories, book reviews and film criticism, travel writing, biography, political commentary, children’s books, and memoirs. In addition, there are a number of obiter dicta expressed in interviews and public letters. As is frequently the case with prolific writers, the very quantity of the work does as much to shield as to disclose the person who produced it.
Further, there is the problem of distinguishing between the artist and his work. In many of Greene’s fictions, he has chosen great issues of religion and politics as the elements in which and against which his characters struggle to attain their moral identity. Greene’s intense exploration of the moral and psychic tensions of that struggle does not always remain on the level of the individual. In however minor a way, his characters often play out their roles on a large stage, and they find themselves plunged into the great social and political events of modern times. As Greene has moved around the world, from political hot spots in Europe, Africa, Indochina, and Central and South America, he has brought into his fiction many of the most distressing and disturbing aspects of our time, probing, as at a rotting tooth, its deep moral confusions. He has done this in ways that, to put it neutrally for the moment, have never been less than controversial.
Another consideration for the prospective Greene critic is that he, like a few other shrewd and prominent writers—writers as dissimilar as Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Norman Mailer—has succeeded in leading his critics to assess his imaginative work in terms that are of his own making. These are not necessarily misleading terms, but they tend to guide critics along paths that Greene has himself set out. He has, for example, recurrently drawn attention to the subject of frontiers—boundaries across which one is tempted to transfer allegiances and loyalties. (“It is the mark of frontiers—the evil of frontiers, perhaps—that things look different when you pass them.”) There are for the protagonists in Greene’s books. The Power and the Glory and The Third Man for example, a number of physical frontiers, peace and safety lying on one side, danger and possible death on the other.
There are other frontiers no less substantial for having no fixed geographical location, frontiers between Communism and the West, success and failure, faith and unbelief, trust and betrayal. Greene has, in both his reportage and his fictions, approached these borders, explored gingerly for the sensitive spots, and investigated the temptations that lead some people to cross over the dangerous boundaries. That investigation has been coupled with Greene’s declared and evident sympathy with the seedy, the outcast, the apparently disloyal, a sympathy that has at times come close to collusion. He seems, indeed, to have a vested interest in failure.
The relation of an artist to his imaginative work remains ultimately impenetrable and mysterious, and the person who attempts to relate one closely to the other treads on treacherous ground that has swallowed up whole more than one ambitious critic. (The theatrically exciting but fundamentally hollow Amadeus is a recent proof that it can swallow up other artists as well.) These usual dangers are compounded by the personality of the strongly idiosyncratic Greene, who maintains a deep personal reticence even as, almost overgenerously, he offers opinions and judgments about issues that form the substance and texture of his work.
These combined factors present formidable challenges to the critic of Greene. There is, however, the compensating grace that his strong personality and temperament shape and color in a characteristic way whatever he puts his hand to. Like brighton rock, the hard stick candy that reveals the same core pattern wherever it is broken, Greene is Greene clear through. From the beginning of his writing over sixty years ago until now, Greene has put on his material a stamp so personal that one can readily recognize a passage as his without being certain whether it is drawn from one of his novels, plays, reviews, or even one of his letters.
His biographer, Norman Sherry, with whom he is working closely, has been unflagging in his efforts to show how bits and pieces of Greene’s experiences, often from the days of his earliest memories and dreams, turn up, transmuted, in his writing. He confirms, if confirmation be needed, that certain themes, interests, and obsessions have run through Greene’s life as through his work. (Unfortunately, Sherry is not always trustworthy in his reading or his interpretation. For example, he writes: “But Greene did not have the character to be a permanent atheist, as [Claud] Cockburn was probably aware when he advised Greene to convert if Vivien wouldn’t marry him otherwise. ‘You’re the one that’s superstitious, because I don’t think it matters.’ How right Cockburn was.” Cockburn right? That Greene should become a convert as a tactic to ensure his marriage to Vivien? That “it” doesn’t matter? That Greene’s interest was a sign of superstition? There is abundant, direct evidence that Greene thought otherwise, and that he did not convert to Catholicism for the reasons that Sherry adduces. Sherry’s biography will be very useful to a future biographer who will have the skills and judgment to use for critical evaluation the material here collected.)
Greene was right, nevertheless, to tell his critics that they should “be a little more inclined to forget what one had written previously,” and not to expect anyone “to remain constant and unchanging.” It is true that Greene’s deepest interests remain the same—religion, politics, love, loyalty, betrayal—but his reflections upon them have changed over the years as has the use he has made of them in his work.
All of Greene’s novels were written after his conversion to Catholicism and a religious sense pervades most of them. However, Catholicism was not a vital ingredient in his fiction until Brighton Rock (1938) in which it was developed with a Manichean rigor. Succeeding novels probed with psychological realism the minds and hearts of ordinary religious believers thrust into situations that tested their allegiance to their faith and to their friends and lovers. These novels provoked, along with some incisive criticism, much tiresome commentary from readers, mainly Catholic, who treated them as if they were case histories calling for moral casuistry. The shift to the political novel—The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Honorary Consul, The Human Factor—was less of a change than it initially appeared, the same basic concerns emerging in new contexts. (Travels with My Aunt  did introduce a Greene who could handle with a light and even zany touch some of the same themes that in earlier works were steeped in seedy corruption and even terror. But this is a change of tone rather than subject.)
In Brighton Rock, for example. Pinkie, the seventeen-year-old Catholic punk, seems possessed by evil and, therefore, in his own eyes—and in those of many of Greene’s readers—capable of being condemned to hell. Brighton Rock is easily classified as a religious novel. But Greene has commented in recent years that Pinkie’s actions were conditioned by the social circumstances in which he had been born and he could not, therefore, be guilty of mortal sin. The Quiet American is set in the wartime Vietnam of the late 1960s and inevitably steeped in political matters, but in the last sentence of the novel the journalist Fowler, heavy with a sense of guilt, says, “How I wish there existed someone to whom I could say I was sorry.” And we are returned to transcendental considerations.
These two novels deal simultaneously with the ultimate fate of individuals and with the harsh and lurid realities in which they work out that fate. Yet the first is commonly classified as a “Catholic novel” and the second a “political novel.” Greene has pointed out that there is a “certain coherence” among It’s a Battlefield, Brighton Rock, and The Honorary Consul that comes from his concern for social change, and that “I suppose I can be called a political writer when I tackle political subjects; but politics is in the air we breathe, like the presence or absence of God.”
Greene’s coupling of politics and God in this way is wholly typical and long-standing. Further, the religion and the politics that have long engaged Greene’s deepest interest have this in common: Both offer a view of human existence that allows each person to place him or herself in the world, to establish his relation to his neighbor, his society, and to ends that transcend his society. It has been, historically, a part of the transforming nature of Western religion that it provides a vantage point from which to criticize, and possibly change, the always imperfect community of the believer. In the twentieth century the only secular doctrine to challenge religion in this respect has been that of Marx as it has been incarnated in the political and social order of Communism.
Greene’s conversion to Catholicism came early in his life, as did his sympathy with Communism, and his relations to each have changed over time. He has used a number of overlapping terms to describe his relation to Catholicism in recent years—an agnostic Catholic, a non-practicing Catholic, a member of the Foreign Legion of the Church. And he has said that he continues to look for Communism with a human face. Given these dual allegiances, however attenuated, one might think it easy to anticipate Greene’s judgment on contested political and religious views. But Greene is a complex man and continues to escape clear categorization. When religion is involved with social movements, he tends to take the conventional radical stance: He joined with Christians who supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Dom Helder Camara in Brazil, and he opposed the bishops in El Salvador who criticized the FMLN rebels.
But when the issues are more narrowly religious, Greene is less predictable. In 1979, he told Marie-Francoise Allain that he admired and supported John Paul for his “political experience” and for the strong stand he has taken on priestly celibacy. (“I think there has been too much laxity in this area.”) Greene admires two noted theologians whose views have not been welcomed by the present Curia or by many traditional Catholics, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx. But he says that he would defend them as Christian theologians, not as Catholic ones. For a Catholic, he asserts, a certain number of facts have to be accepted, “otherwise one becomes as foggy as the Anglicans.” He rejects the idea that the Crucifixion should be “turned into some wooly sort of symbol.” Schillebeeckx’s works were intended to make the unbelievable credible, he says, but “they have had the opposite effect on me—they have suddenly revived in me a deep faith in the inexplicable, in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection.”
Almost ten years later, in a long interview that appeared in the (London) Tablet late in 1989, Greene reviewed his current religious status. To summarize Greene’s nuanced comments would inevitably distort them, elliptical and elusive as they are, but some of their flavor may be suggested. He says that he attends a Mass in Latin that his friend Fr. Leopoldo Duran has permission to celebrate, that he confesses, and that “I take the host because that pleases [Father Duran].” “Lack of belief is not something to confess. One’s sorry, but one wishes one could believe. And I pray at night . . . that a miracle should be done and that I should believe.” In response to a question, he says, “I don’t believe in hell. I never have believed in hell. . . . They say God is mercy ... so it’s contradictory.” (Many years earlier Greene wrote in Lawless Roads, a work of non-fiction: “One began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell one could picture with a certain intimacy.” This view is quite close to that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, except that Pinkie had difficulty in making the leap to a belief in heaven. Still, as Greene noted, one shouldn’t expect unchanging constancy in a writer.)
When asked about Padre Pio, the noted stigmatic who made a strong impression on Greene and whose picture he carries in his wallet, Greene says that if he had not had his mysterious experience with the Padre, “Perhaps I would have lost it [belief] altogether.”
He reveals that he did not like the liberation church he attended in Managua, because he didn’t see a single poor person there; it was an entirely middle-class congregation. “I much prefer the awful traditional statues and a poor congregation. The poor can associate with these things.”
In Greene’s expressed religious views, there has been both continuity and change over the years. Belief intertwined with doubt and both undergirded by faith. It is best to acknowledge that we will not understand him too readily.
It is almost embarrassing to descend from such considerations to another of Greene’s obsessions—or at least continuing preoccupations—his anti-Americanism. A number of people have interpreted Greene’s anti-Americanism as his reaction to the foolish restrictions that the McGarran Act led the U.S. government to place upon him because of his very brief youthful membership in the Communist party. That experience may have intensified Greene’s feelings but it did not initiate them. Greene’s anti-Americanism is an early attitude, and it seems to be of a quality different from the easy sense of superiority that was once more common in England than it is today. Early on, during his stint as a film reviewer, he wrote apropos of The Road Back (1937), of “the eternal adolescence of the American mind, to which literature means the poetry of Longfellow and morality means keeping Mother’s Day and looking after the kid sister’s purity . . . the same adolescent features, plump, smug, sentimental, ready for the easy tear and the hearty laugh and the fraternity yell. What use in pretending that with these allies it was ever possible to fight for civilization?”
That attitude has persisted to this day and it regularly pops up in various guises. It even overcomes his sense of divided loyalties. He has recently said that “the temptation to double allegiance tends to disappear before American capitalism and imperialism. I would go to almost any length to put my feeble twig in the spokes of American foreign policy. I admit this may appear simplistic, but that’s how it is.” And he attributes his “revulsion” and his “animosity”—his terms—to his first visit to the United States. “The terrifying weight of this consumer society oppresses me.” He goes on to complain that “the United States came in at the very end of both our wars and took all the credit. ... I am closer to Communism than I might otherwise be because of America.” It is true that this attitude has not persisted with the strength of its early virulence. He now says that he is opposed not to the American people but only to the White House. It is difficult to sort through and make sense of all these assertions. Enough for now to contemplate them briefly and pass on.
Although Greene can account for his repulsion to American society, at least to his own satisfaction, he cannot, he says, explain his long-standing attraction toward Communism. The combination can, however, lead him to make curious evaluations such as, “Russian materialism is less solidly anchored than American materialism,” or that “in the USSR there’s more of a latent sense of religion however deeply buried.” (Of that last opinion a spirit as irreverent as Greene’s own might observe that it is Communism that has helped bury religion so deeply.) The attitudes were also joined in Greene’s part in an exchange of letters to The Times (London) during the war in Vietnam: “South Viet Nam has suffered under the Japanese and the French, it has suffered under President Diem and his successors. It has suffered under the Americans, but when has it once suffered under Communists?” Since that exchange there has been ample opportunity to observe and condemn the suffering that Communists have inflicted on what was once South Vietnam, but if Greene has done so most of us have missed it.
Greene once said that he would prefer to “end my days” in Russia rather than the United States. Asked to account for that choice, he replied that he meant that a writer counts for nothing in the United States where he is not regarded as influential, whereas in the USSR what writers say is taken so seriously that they often end up in the Gulag, as might Greene himself “if I was important enough for that.” This apologia is as unoriginal as it is fatuous. One could, following this line, argue that the Soviets take free speech more seriously than the democracies since they place such restrictions upon it—and upon religion, free association, and a free press as well. One might then infer that in the present climate in which restrictions are being relaxed, the Soviet Union is beginning to take such freedoms less seriously. But the argument is too tedious to pursue.
One of the people that Greene spent time with when, after an absence of twenty-six years, he visited the Soviet Union, was Kim Philby. Philby’s beliefs and career—and Greene’s attitudes toward them—bear close attention. Philip Knightley, Philby’s biographer, has called Philby “the most remarkable spy in the history of espionage.” Before leaving Cambridge in 1933, Philby was converted to Communism and, without ever formally joining the Party, was soon given his lifelong assignment to penetrate the British Secret Intelligence Service. After doing so, he rose rapidly in the ranks to become liaison officer to the GIA and FBI and seemed in line to become Chief of the Service. At the very heart of the operations against the Soviets in the postwar years, he performed for them admirably for decades and inflicted enormous damage on Western Intelligence, in the process sending to their deaths a number of agents, some of whom he had himself recruited. When asked by Knightley about one specific aspect of his espionage work, Philby answered:
The agents we sent into Albania were armed men intent on sabotage, murder, and assassination. They were quite as ready as I was to contemplate bloodshed in the service of a political ideal. They knew the risks they were running. I was serving the interests of the Soviet Union and those interests required that these men were defeated. To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets.
When Knightley said that he couldn’t imagine being so devoted to a political ideal that he would shed blood for it, Philby responded: “Well, that’s where we differ. I have always operated on a personal level and a political level. When the two have come in conflict I have always put politics first.” It is in that spirit that Philby reacted to the question his wife Eleanor once put to him: “What is more important in your life—me and the children or the Communist Party?” Philby answered immediately, “The Party, of course.” The choices, and possible betrayals, demanded by such loyalty and dedication are clear.
Here are many of the ingredients for a Greene novel, as Greene himself has reason to know. He worked under Philby in MI5, where they became friends. In 1968, five years after Philby had left the West (and his wife) and settled in Moscow, Greene wrote a warm introduction to his book, The Silent War (Philby said, “I was flabbergasted when I read it. He understood what I had done and why I had done it”). Thereafter, Greene conducted a correspondence with Philby, asked him to vet The Human Factor, the novel that drew upon Philby’s life, and visited him a number of times on visits to the Soviet Union in the mid-’80s.
We now have a quite full, though not complete, account of Greene’s response to Philby and his espionage, but if we did not, could we have predicted it accurately? The answer, I think, is uncertain. Greene was impressed by the life and writings of Simone Weil, but he could make the sharp judgment that, for her, “love ... is only universal love.” This universal love, the dedication to abstract causes, is counterpoised in much of Greene’s writings to the love of individuals, of another person, of God, and to the trust and loyalty that should accompany that love. As a character in Our Man in Havana asks, “Would the world be in the mess it is now if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”
It is worth quoting at some length Greene’s estimate of My Silent War, which he termed Philby’s “dignified statement of his beliefs and motives.”
The end, of course, in his eyes is held to justify the means, but this is a view taken, perhaps less openly, by most men involved in politics, if we are to judge them by their actions, whether the politician be a Disraeli or a Wilson. “He betrayed his country”—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country? In Philby’s eyes he was working for a shape of things to come from which his country would benefit. Anyway moral judgments are singularly out of place in espionage. . . .
I attributed it [Philby’s intrigue] to a personal drive for power, the only characteristic in Philby which I thought disagreeable. I am glad now I was wrong. He was serving a cause and not himself, and so my old liking for him comes back.
What is one to make of such puerile moral analysis? It disallows or trivializes any moral judgment of espionage; it places the actions of responsible political leaders on the same moral level as Philby’s treason; it evades and softens the fact of Philby’s betrayal with the nicely placed qualifier in “yes, perhaps he did.” Beyond all that it fails to examine and judge the cause for which Philby expended his superior intelligence, energy, wit, and charm, the end for which all the rest was the means: the spread and eventual victory of Communism. It’s rather late in the day to argue the merits of a system showing the ravages of ongoing decomposition. Was the nature of this particular political beast so difficult to discern over all these years? For some people it apparently was, but it seems odd that they should be honored for their lack of discernment.
For my purposes here it is enough to note that Greene’s attraction to Communism has damaged his powers of observation and analysis. Even more, it has damaged his usual candor and honesty. This is a harsh charge and one unpleasant to make, but it is sustainable. Some examples: In 1981 Greene said, “I don’t believe that literature has a great influence on politics. . . . We are not educators. Our job is to write about any instance of injustice when we are able to help.” However, in an interview for Literaturnya Gazeta in 1984 be said, “Literature, you know, helps the fight against dictatorial regimes and I did what I could to contribute to this fight.” Subsequently, when in Moscow in 1986, in another interview for the same journal Greene said, speaking of his Catholicism, “The nearer fascism came to us, and the more it spread all over the world, the more necessary it was to oppose it by building moral obstacles to it in the consciousness of the masses. . . . I felt it necessary to make faith the symbol of resistance.” Yet nothing we know of Greene’s conversion to Catholicism in 1926 at the age of twenty-one supports this claim.
But what does all this add up to? To return to our original question, does it enlighten us about the books Greene bas produced in the past decade? Is he still a writer worth attending to, or have his ill-formed judgments and prejudices deformed his later works? The answer to that question requires closer attention to those works. Over Doctor Fischer of Geneva we need not linger. It is a finger-exercise, based on a premise that challenges rather than seduces the suspension of disbelief, though within its severe limitations the familiar craftsman is at work. “Doctor Fischer said, ‘For several years now I have been studying the rich. “To him that hath shall be given”—those cynical words of Christ they take very literally. “Given” not “earned” you notice.’” On this theme Greene constructs his small exploration of greed.
Greene’s other books of the decade are more substantial and reflect more directly his political and religious interests. Getting to Know the General is a memoir of experiences and reflections that began in 1976 with a totally unexpected invitation—ticket included—from General Omar Torrijos to visit Panama as his guest. Greene knew neither the President nor Panama, but he accepted the invitation and before he concluded a series of visits—several preceding and one following the death of Torrijos in 1981—he “had come to love” the General and to develop an affection for the General’s trusted security guard and for Panama. Greene’s first visits coincided with the preparation for and the signing of the Panama Treaty during President Carter’s presidency. This was not coincidental, for Torrijos wanted to gain favorable notices and support in the United States. He chose well, for Greene supplied both and reached attentive audiences in the U.S.
Greene’s observations of Panama and its people are those of a trained observer with a sharp eye for details and the imaginative ability to give them emotional weight and color. The direction in which he bends these effects may be suggested by a sampling of Greene’s comments. In Washington for the signing of the Treaty, he had been asked by Garcia Marquez to go with him to a demonstration against the reprehensible General Pinochet of Chile. “Unwillingly, I refused. I didn’t trust the American people to distinguish between one Latin American general and another.” However, since Pinochet was the only general the American demonstrators were protesting, it occurred to Greene that “perhaps they couldn’t spell Stroessner’s name and they couldn’t even remember Banzer’s.”
He has great good fun with others present at the signing of the Treaty: “Kissinger . . . with his worldwide grin,” “Nelson Rockefeller strenuously amiable with Ladybird,” “Andy Young, bright and boyish. . . . All of them looking consciously unimportant.” But it is with Pinochet that he is most sharply observant.
His chin was so deeply sunk in his collar that he seemed to have no neck at all; he had clever, humorous, falsely goodfellow eyes which seemed to be telling us not to take too seriously all those stories of murder and torture emanating from South America. I could hardly believe that only a week had passed since I listened in Panama to the refugee who broke down when she described how a bayonet had been thrust into her vagina.
That the refugee story had nothing to do with Chile might confuse the unsophisticated reader, and even the most permissive might question whether even Pinochet’s eyes could be quite so communicative. In a good cause, such trifles seem to trouble Greene not at all.
During the years of his Panama visits, Greene came to know leading figures of Nicaragua, including Daniel Ortega and “his beautiful wife” Rosaria, Father Cardenal, Tomas Borge, and other Sandinistas high in the government. Some of these notables were there to greet him on his first visit to Nicaragua and to educate him in current Nicaraguan affairs. Greene is thus able to report on “the strange attitude of Archbishop Obando,” the stalwart bishop who was a severe critic of Somoza and gradually came to be an equally severe critic of the Sandinistas when it became clear that they were conscious Marxist-Leninists whose behavior in power betrayed the promises of the revolution. Greene’s report is, however, the straight party line of the Sandinistas: Obando is a conservative whose wounded vanity causes him to reject the reasonable and generous offers of the government.
Greene hews closely to the party line on other matters as well. He informs his readers that the Nicaraguan people were unhappy that during his visit Pope John Paul II made no reference to the young Sandinistas recently killed by the Contras. (Greene seems unperturbed by or simply ignorant of the fact that during that visit the Vatican Radio technicians were threatened at gunpoint by Sandinista agents who seized control of the sound system as the Pope was celebrating mass in order to drown out his criticism of “the people’s church.”)
Having asked about the Miskito Indians, whose treatment by the Sandinistas “had provoked a great deal of anti-Sandinista propaganda,” Greene was told by Tomas Borge that the Sandinistas had clumsily neglected to explain to the Miskitos that they were being moved for their own good. An American nun informed him that the Indians were well taken care of, in some respects better than they had ever been. It would be unreasonable to expect a renowned novelist in his eighties to go scurrying around unobtrusively to get first-hand accounts of the reality of the situation. He could, however, have followed the advice Cardinal Obando has given other tourists and talked with representatives of differing opinions about the Sandinistas. But he didn’t. It is not surprising, then, that Greene seems innocent of the Miskitos’ long and ongoing travail, which they doubtless would have been quite willing to tell him about.
If one were to cull out only such details from Getting to Know the General, the result would be Greene’s book without his acute and entertaining observations and speculation, one that might well be titled The Innocent Ideologue Abroad. Greene is not quite so innocent, though, that it never occurred to him that he might have been used by General Torrijos or the Sandinistas. But he says, “I have never hesitated to be ‘used’ in a cause I believed in, even if my choice might be only for a lesser evil. We can never foresee the future with any accuracy.” A sensible comment if the choice is, in fact, for the lesser evil. And while it is true that we cannot foresee the future, we can make something of the past, and we have substantial reason to believe that a Marxist-Leninist regime would in all likelihood be the greater evil. However, for Greene no such considerations apparently should intrude in the face of an opportunity once again to insert his “feeble twig” into the spokes of America’s foreign policy.
While Greene was in Panama, he kept notes for a novel On the Way Back. That novel resisted completion, but he did draw on those experiences for The Captain and the Enemy. In this story, twelve-year-old Baxter is taken from his English public school by the “Captain,” who claims—quite truthfully, we find—to have won him in a backgammon game with the boy’s father. Baxter goes, quite willingly, to live with the Captain and his mistress, Liza, who wants a child of her own. After some years the Captain leaves for Panama. Some further years later, and soon after the death of Liza, Baxter, now twenty-two, follows him. Baxter, who has never gotten a firm grasp on the Captain and what sustains him, discovers that the Captain has developed a mission—to kill Somoza, whose name is completely unfamiliar to Baxter, and to help the Sandinistas. He also discovers that the Englishman Quigley, against whom the Captain had warned him, was working the other side of the street.
A few quotations must suffice to suggest the use Greene made of his Panama material. The Captain drives Baxter “unchecked into the American Zone, past all the golfers and the barracks and the churches.” The Captain comments: “A very religious people, the Yankees. I forgot to show you the Argosy Book Stall. That is really unique. The only bookshop in the Zone. Of course with so much religion, not to speak of military duties, they have very little time to read.” But, of course, as we have just been informed, they do have enough time to play golf.
Later, in an unusual burst of confidential information, Quigley informs Baxter: “The people here hate the Zone. In Nicaragua they are fighting Somoza and in Salvador they are fighting death squads—and both Somoza and the death squads are helped by the United States.... You see, the small stuff has to be bought somewhere. Of course, the Yankees say it comes from Russia or Cuba. Anyone who fights a dictator controlled by them is a Communist. It’s a useful way of explaining things to the great public and perhaps they are right. It wouldn’t do to say that their friend Israel might be ready to sell a few tanks to their friends the dictators.”
Clearly, the Americans and their policies come off very badly in Greene’s scenarios, which have, unfortunately for him, been overtaken and discredited by the future that he could not have foretold. If a political litmus test provided the only criteria by which this novel were measured, many readers would rate it a complete botch. But neither the sketchy outline nor the selected quotations do justice to the keen exploration of love and friendship, the weighing and balancing and confusion of truth and deception, reality and fiction, that make this a novel worth reading. If it fails to be first-rate Greene, it is still more intelligent and interesting than many contemporary novels that are highly acclaimed. It has an additional virtue. Taken together with Getting to Know the General it provides a lesson in how Greene transforms the raw material of reportage into a new form.
That transforming power is even more evident in Monsignor Quixote and used to better effect. Greene has frequently compared and contrasted Catholicism and Communism. “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent.” This particular formulation is that of a character in The Comedians, but it is a Greenean sentiment that has appeared in various guises in his writing. When Greene visited Castro, he proposed the possibility of true cooperation between Communism and Catholicism, a proposition that Castro reportedly listened to with sympathy. Philby noted that when Greene addressed a peace forum in the Soviet Union he told his rapt audience that he envisioned a future in which the Roman Catholic Church and Communism marched shoulder to shoulder against poverty and repression. Philby also reported that when they were privately together in Moscow, able to speak frankly with each other, “we were able to discuss doubt, a matter of great importance to us both—the nagging doubt we had both felt, him as a Roman Catholic and me as a Communist.”
Many people would readily dismiss the similarities that Greene insists on finding between Communism and Catholicism, but out of his continuing and intense interest—amounting almost to an obsession—Greene has fashioned in Monsignor Quixote one of his most disarming and delightful books. Although it will add to one’s pleasure, one does not have to have read Cervantes to follow Monsignor Quixote and “Sancho,” the Communist ex-Mayor of El Toboso as, for different reasons, they take leave of the town and depart in the monsignor’s broken-down car that he has named “Rocinante.”
During the leisurely pace imposed by Rocinante, the two have time to discuss Pontius Pilate and Fidel Castro, an unusual reading of the parable of the prodigal son, the Trinity, Franco, Stalin, the Inquisition, sex, damnation, Marx, condoms, wine, authority, and a host of tangentially related subjects. Their discussion is intermittently interrupted by their encounters with suspicious police, a criminal, foreigners, callow Americans, regional dust-ups, a brothel, and a chase in which they are the prey. Greene’s apparently endless and effortless antic invention carries the reader along, as it carries the two travelers, to an ending that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. (As an aside, it might be worth noting that Greene’s antic spirit led him to continue his twinning of Catholicism and Communism outside the novel, to divide the Spanish and Latin American royalties from Monsignor Quixote between a Trappist monastery in Galicia and the Marxist FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador.)
In both of these recent novels Greene has bent to his artistic purposes a number of beliefs and doubts that in other contexts he has said were his own. In the novels, however, they belong to the characters, and we should be most wary of attempting to reverse the creative process, of attributing to Greene attitudes and beliefs for which there is not independent evidence. (Greene once called his friend Waugh to account for just such a [mis]reading when Waugh equated some aspects of the Catholic architect Querry in The Burnt Out Case with the Catholic novelist who created him. Many other readers made the same equation.)
This is not, of course, the first time that Greene has employed the explicit differences and similarities between believers in Catholicism and Communism to govern a novel. What many regard as possibly the finest of his novels, The Power and the Glory(1940), had a similar framework. Considered together, The Power and the Glory and Monsignor Quixote are a measure of both the continuity and the disjunctions in Greene’s life and work. The severe and narrow intensity of the earlier novel has been allowed to spread and broaden, the angular harshness to become a mellow acceptance. Fortunately, as readers, we do not have to choose between the two works. We can read and enjoy both for the fine novels they are. With Monsignor Quixote, Greene has extended the canon of works to which we can pleasurably return, which for me includes at least The Power and the Glory, Brighton Rock, The Third Man, and Travels with My Aunt.
If the exposition of Greene’s beliefs and attitudes concerning politics and religion are as I have brushed them in, and if the evaluation of a number of his novels is reasonably acceptable, we are left with a particular case of a perennial problem—how to relate the person to his or her artistic production. Some critics, resenting the intrusion of Greene’s political and religious views, however transmuted, into the novels, have rejected them as some form of propaganda. Others have either agreed with or minimized his ideological orientation. Still others, regarding the novels as autonomous works, standing completely on their own, are content to ignore completely the “accidents” of their creation. None of these responses is adequate.
There is, of course, a relation between the beliefs of the man and the use he makes of them. But it is not a direct equation. The teller is not the tale. Greene has stated explicitly that “in an article one can try to express a direct point of view, but not in a [novel]. I don’t want to use literature for political ends nor for religious ends.”
He has, I believe, been true to this credo. What he has done is put his political and religious concerns to literary ends. His political judgments are often erratic, his anti-Americanism seems an idiosyncratic aberration, and his hope for Communism with a human face is based on a foolish and misguided romanticism. But when Greene is at his best in his novels, he uses all that I have just criticized to create a world that has coherence and solidity inhabited by characters with gravitas, and he inspires in the reader a confidence that only a true artist can provide. From the beginning of his career, it is the human factor that has most interested Greene. It is no diminution of his impressive ability to evoke the social and political atmosphere of places as different as Haiti, Vietnam, Cuba, England, Norway, South America, Mexico, the Soviet Union, and Spain to say that it is his imaginative exploration of the human factor that will ensure him whatever immortality literature can offer.
Greene’s religious life is, of course, personal and should be respected as such. His candor about his beliefs has not violated his sense of privacy, his deep reticence. His expressed views and feelings about his Catholicism reveal, however, a man who is highly reflective, heterodox, ambivalent, inventive, ecumenical but impatient of easy ecumenism, candid within self-imposed limits, desirous of belief and filled with doubt, prayerful without being confident of an auditor, still open to and filled with the mystery that life presents. Early closure is not for Greene. If he were to write not an autobiography (too much concealment is possible there), but an autobiographical novel, on what note, it is interesting to speculate, would the protagonist’s life come to an end? What would be properly Greenean? Only Greene and God can know—and maybe only God.
James Finn is Editorial Director of Freedom House and Editor of its bimonthly magazine, Freedom at Issue.