Review: The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (first published in 1943).

Summary: Just released from a psychiatric hospital for the mercy killing of his wife, Arthur Rowe inadvertently gets caught up in a twisty espionage plot.

It is 1943, the middle of World War 2 in London, with nightly bombing raids and no one knowing if they will live to the next morning. Arthur Rowe lives quietly in a flat, reading and re-reading The Old Curiosity Shop. He’s been exempted from the war effort because he was recently released from a psychiatric facility where he had served a sentence of the mercy killing of his wife.

Inadvertently, he is caught up in an espionage affair, surviving poisoning, escaping another murder charge only to survive a bomb blast when a case, supposedly of books that he is carrying to a hotel rendezvous explodes. He loses his memory, narrowly escapes a sinister psychiatrist, and joins the effort to hunt down the espionage mastermind, the brother of a woman he has fallen in love with, Anna Hilfe. I’ve seen plenty of plot movement and narrow escapes in other Greene novels, but nothing like the madcap adventures of this novel, reminiscent more of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday than anything else I’ve read by Greene.

It begins at a charity fete where Rowe visits a fortune teller who mistakes him for one of the conspirators, that enables him to win a cake in which a role of microfilm has been hidden. He is poisoned, but survives, when he will not give up the cake. After working with a detective, he visits the fortune teller again, and when the lights go out, a man is murdered with a knife carried by Rowe. Knowing he could be charged with murder, he flees, ends up carrying a case of what he thinks are books to a hotel for a man he met at a book seller.

The case explodes, he survives but with the loss of his memory, recovering in a bucolic country psychiatric facility (again!) headed by a soothing but sinister doctor up to no good. He’s visited by Anna Hilfe, who works at the charity that ran the fete, who he’d met earlier and encountered just before the suitcase bomb exploded. He comes to love her, even though he does not remember the prior connection, nor the ways her brother Willi is involved in the espionage plot, ways that become clearer as memory returns and he joins the effort to uncover the ring and retrieve a crucial microfilm.

“The Ministry of Fear” formally is an espionage ring, but becomes more in Greene’s plot. It is the dull reality of the nightly existence of Londeners. For Rowe, it is the fear of being found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit while struggling to justify the one he did. Fear and distrust taints love as both Rowe and Anna know things of the other and of themselves that they dare not reveal. With the catastrophic losses of war and the gray world of espionage, one senses people anxiously clinging to illusions of normalcy in a world gone wrong, and living off balance as a result. It may well be Greene’s snapshot of his times–and a parable for our own.

Review: Orient Express

Orient Express, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published as Stamboul Train in 1932).

Summary: Seven people on a train between Ostend and Constantinople intersect in various ways, making choices about the kind of people they will be.

Seven people on a train from Ostend to Constantinople. Mabel Warren is a hack reporter who drinks too much and is on a routine assignment when she recognizes that Richard John, a school master is actually Dr. Czinner, a dissident returning to his native country to hopefully lead an uprising, the story of Mabel’s career. Warren is accompanied by her assistant who is also her lover, Janet Pardoe, enroute to visit a relative, and secretly hoping for a different life. Myatt is a successful young Jewish businessman, an importer of dates, among other things. Coral Musker is an worn out dancer with a heart condition, attended by Richard John, exposing him as a doctor. When she collapses, she is given Myatt’s berth because she couldn’t afford her own, obligating her in the way women often have been obligated to men, which Myatt doesn’t refuse, even though he is drawn more to Janet Pardoe.

Two others play lesser parts. Mr. Savory is a popular writer, perhaps collecting material and also interested in Janet. Finally, joining them in Vienna is an elusive thief, Josef Grünlich escaping a murder charge when a safe-cracking job went south. Meanwhile, Mabel Warren, victim of another thief in Vienna is not able to reboard the train. Because Czinner refused to compromise his plans to save being exposed, Mabel wires the story to her paper, setting up Czinner’s apprehension. Coral and Josef Grünlich get caught up in it.

What is striking is the contrast between one character shaped by noble ideals and six others who live by looking out for number one. The others have their chances but basically are survivors like the great mass of us. There is also the element of a journey where the constraints of ordinary life, and relational commitments are in flux, particularly evident with Mabel and Janet, and Myatt and Coral.

This is early Graham Greene. It is said he wrote this to make a bit of money. But we can already see one of the characteristic elements of Greene’s work–characters in a liminal place and how they will respond. This lacked the focus and weight of later works, but nevertheless held your interest, wanting to see what the end of the journey held for each.

Review: The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1951).

Summary: A writer struggles to understand why the woman he has had an affair with broke it off, discovering who ultimately came between them.

Maurice Bendrix, a rising writer, encounters Henry Miles, the successful but dull civil servant Bendrix had cuckolded by having a five year affair with Sarah Miles, his attractive wife. The affair, hidden from Henry had ended nearly two years earlier. All that Henry knew (or claimed to know) was that Bendrix had been a great friend. Now he comes to Bendrix with a problem. He is concerned that Sarah may be seeing someone else and wonders about hiring a private detective.

Bendrix discourages this plan, but ends up hiring the detective himself. He’s never understood why Sarah broke off their affair, although at some level, he knows his jealousy of Henry, who she will not leave, had been driving them apart. But they had a powerful love that drew them together. They were parted toward the end of the war when a German V-1 struck the building they were in, leaving him apparently dead underneath some debris. But in fact, he survived. Their affair did not.

Only when the private detective purloins a journal does Bendrix discover the truth. Sarah had found him under the debris, apparently lifeless and made a plea, a promise to God for his life. If he lived, she would not see him again. And the others Sarah was seeing? An atheist and a priest helping her sort out the question of belief. In the end, Bendrix finds out it is not Henry or any of these rivals who came between him and Sarah. It was God. The God he hated who did not exist.

He discovers something else as he reads the journal, and talks with Henry, the atheist, the priest, and the detective. There had been a saintly goodness about Sarah that Bendrix hadn’t seen amid their torrid affair. Even that affair was a longing for passionate love, a love she hadn’t found with Henry. There was more–Henry’s life given back, a disfigurement that disappeared, a sickly child healed. I’m intrigued that Greene includes this “miraculous” element in the story.

We discover that neither Henry Miles nor Maurice Bendrix truly took the measure of Sarah during her life. There was a higher love in her life unsatisfied by being the trophy wife of a civil servant or the possessive passion of Bendrix’s love. The question we are left with is whether Bendrix will respond with love or with hate both to Sarah and Sarah’s God.

Greene, who wrote several novels touching on religious themes raises a searching question: can God call for ultimate love and loyalty? Even when it means the end of the affair? It may be one of the marks of modernity that this is even a question.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: The Quiet American

the quiet american

The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1955).

Summary: A novel set in French-occupied Vietnam paralleling the entangled lives of a British journalist and American agent with the entanglement of war in Vietnam.

Thomas Fowler, a British correspondent in French occupied Vietnam in the early 1950’s, arrives at home one night to find Phuong waiting outside. She reports that American  Alden Pyle has not returned home. She has been living with Pyle, supposedly with an American Economic Mission. Before living with Pyle, she had lived with Fowler. She stays the night, and they learn the next morning that Pyle is dead when they are summoned for questioning by the French Sureté.

Graham Greene then narrates the strange conflicted relationship of these two men who love one woman, and the equally entangled and conflicted relationships of all those who get involved in Vietnam. Fowler wants to believe that he is the uninvolved British journalist, whose country is not a party to the conflict. He has a wife at home from whom he is separated but who will not divorce him. Phuong meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes and she benefits materially from his attention but he can offer nothing more, although holding out the hope of a divorce. Pyle, who loves her at first sight, is unattached and due to come into money becomes a rival, candidly telling Fowler his intentions, and yet strangely taking to Fowler as his best friend, He saves Fowler’s life at one point when they are stranded in enemy territory, and steals Phuong.

Fowler gradually learns that Pyle isn’t all that he seems. He discovers that Pyle is doing something with plastics, that turn out to be plastic explosives, being used to undermine the regime in Saigon. He is actually a CIA agent. Fowler is curious, but remains detached until a bombing of a square intended to break up a parade that is cancelled kills and maims scores of innocents, an act with the fingerprints of Pyle all over it. He faces hard choices of what to do with his knowledge of this “quiet American,” his rival in love, yet one in some ways to whom he is beholden.

Fowler has tried to avoid entangling involvements. A conversation with a French pilot who napalmed villages describes the folly of such an attempt, in both love, and in the Vietnam conflict. When Fowler protests, “That’s why I won’t be involved.” the French pilot replies:

” ‘It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love–they have always been compared.’ He looked sadly across the dormitory to where the métisse sprawled in her great temporary peace. He said, ‘I would not have it otherwise. There is a girl who was involved by her parents–what is her future when this port falls. France is only half her home…’ “

Greene’s tale was prescient, published in 1955, of the troubling future that would face, first the French, and then the Americans, already present, in Vietnam. Fowler discovered that he, too, was involved with Phuong, with Pyle, and that Vietnam was a far more complicated mistress than any understood. He evades his editors requests to return to London. Love and War has claimed him, as it would many others.

Sadly, this was an instance of prophecy ignored, and it could be argued that there have been others since. We are still in Iraq, and Afghanistan, unable to extricate ourselves from commitments made in “moments of emotion.”  The Quiet American is a cautionary tale as relevant in our times as it was in the mid-1950’s. Hopefully, we will not proceed as heedlessly now as we did then.

Review: The Comedians

the-comedians

The ComediansGraham Greene. New York: Penguin, 2005 (my edition 1976).

Summary: Three men, Brown, Smith, and Jones meet on a ship bound for Haiti during the reign of terror of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. They are the “comedians” who must confront not only the tragedy of Haiti, but themselves.

One of the darkest periods of Haiti’s troubled history was the rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957 until 1971. It was a reign of terror enforced by a secret police, the Tontons Macoute who killed between 30 and 60,000 while many others fled the country.

This is the Haiti to which the three main characters in the book are traveling aboard the Medea. Brown is a hotelier, who inherited the Hotel Trianon from his mother, and is returning, having been unable to sell the property, and drawn by a love affair with the wife of an ambassador. Smith is a former presidential candidate, of the Vegetarian Party, which got 10,000 votes in its election race. He hopes to establish a center for vegetarianism on the island.  Jones is a confidence man, who consistently stays just one step of the law, on his tails even aboard ship. He styles himself a major, boasts of battle experience in Burma, Japan, and the Congo, and hopes to secure the rights to establish a golf club for Duvalier and his cronies.

Each faces the shattering of their “comedic” dreams in the face of the brutal realities of Papa Doc and the sinister Tonton Macoute epitomized by Captain Concasseur. From the moment Smith arrives, he must deal with the fleeing minister, Philipot, who commits suicide by his pool, and the later absurdity of his casket being carted away in the back of one of the Tontons vehicles, half sticking out the trunk. This was the same Philipot that Smith and his wife hoped to meet to pursue their vegetarian dream, only to discover that any dream of this sort must be accompanied by bribes and graft. Subsequently, Smith, in his rectitude stands up to the powers and takes his money across the border to the Dominican Republic, shedding his naive ideas about Haiti, but not his principles.

Jones is perhaps the most interesting, going from being held in prison as the law catches up with him at last, to becoming a crony, only to be found out as even shadier than the crooks in the regime. He hides out in the embassy where Brown’s lover, Martha lives and Smith, in his jealousy, traps Jones in his own lies and lures him to lead a band in a quixotic revolt against Duvalier. In doing so, Smith comes face to face with both his longing for and inability to believe in enduring love.

Like other Graham Green works, Brown in particular struggles between faith and doubt, between the Catholicism in which he was raised, and a world seemingly desolate of goodness, of purpose, and of love. It was interesting to me that Dr. Magiot, a Marxist, is the one true believer (other than Smith with his vegetarian-utopian dreams), whose life, and sacrifice is motivated by the long view of the fulfillment of a Communist vision of the future. Greene helps us understand the appeal of Communism for principled people faced with corrupt regimes and a subservient church. More than this, Greene uses the backdrop of the absurd comedic horror of Duvalier’s Haiti to strip the central characters of their comedic illusions and face them with who they were and what ultimately mattered to them.