Sunday, September 05, 2010


The Honorary Consul

By Graham Greene

Despair is the most un-Catholic of emotions. Yet it finds its way into a lot of the work of Greene, supposedly a Catholic writer. A convert to Catholicism at 21, Graham Greene's work often portrays struggles with that religion's attendant traumas. The Church's absolute certainties - of sin and salvation, of good and evil, often contradict the temporal world's realities. And in Greene's world, the good man often causes the evil and the saviour more often than not has a tinge of cynical badness to him. The lines are always blurred.

The Honorary Consul is set in a frontier town of Argentina, across the border from Paraguay where a cruel dictatorship is being propped up by the CIA. It is typical Greeneland, a back-of-the-beyond colonial setting where white men act out dilemnas with morality, religion, communism.

The Honorary Consul is Charles Fortnum, a habitually drunk Englishman with no particular qualification for diplomacy except for the fact that he has lived in this particular Argentinian town for long years, farming. Charley is old and divorced, one of 3 Englishmen in town, unremarkable until he falls in love with and marries a young prostitute Clara.

Eduardo Plarr is the younger Englishman, a doctor who runs a practice in the town. Drawn to Clara inexplicably, he sees her for what she is, simple and grasping, for whom Charley is a means to an end. And so he dismisses Charley as nothing more than a drunken fool.

But when Charley is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity, Plarr is torn. His responsibility in the kidnapping and his growing awareness of what Charley has in his unconditional love for Clara makes for terrific guilt. And it is compounded by the fact that Clara is carrying his baby.

The final stages of the kidnapping, with Plarr and his conscience, his ambivalence about Charley and the knowledge that Charley has something he cannot even begin to feel, make for guilt-ridden drama. Leon Rivas, the defrocked priest and kidnapper is the other character in the stage. Childhood friend of Plarr and the one who gets him involved in the kidnapping, Leon is the failed Catholic who yet believes in the Church and its goodness. It is a strange kind of faith, but Greene seems to be saying that in these cruel times, it is possibly the only possible true faith.

Charley's unabashed, unconditional love for Clara is his saving grace. Just as Plarr's incapacity for that kind of feeling is his downfall. That's what Greene's morality play seems to say. To the reader the lines are blurred. That's what makes the book so definitively interesting

But my favourite Greene still remains The Quiet American.

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