Henry Pulling is a recently retired bank manager. He was offered an arrangement after many years of devoted service when his bank was taken over by another. He is looking forward to spending more time with the dahlias that are his pride and joy, and also rubbing shoulders with his former customers in Southwood, an unremarkable London suburb that seems to be populated entirely by retired officers from the armed forces. He mentions Omo quite a lot and is vaguely embarrassed by the fact that he shares initials with a well known brand of sauce. And then he meets his long lost aunt, Augusta Bertram.
Henry's mother has just died. His father died forty years before. He never really knew the father and his relationship with his mother was perennially tense. After the funeral, Agatha takes him on one side and calmly informs him that his father was something of a rogue and that his "mother" was really his step-mother, his true biological mother being one of his father's bits on the side. Henry Pulling finds himself attracted to his aunt, not because she is something of an eccentric, unpredictable old bird, but also because she retains, somewhere, the secret of his own origins. When she suggests they travel together, he eagerly accompanies, despite the fact that he has never been one for straying far from the nest.
Graham Greene has Henry and Aunt Augusta travel as far afield as Brighton, Istanbul and South America. Together, via stories from Aunt Agatha's past, they relive the first half of the twentieth century, from late Victorian roots to 1960s drug culture, from fascism to dictators, from war to peace. Throughout, Henry Pulling comes across as a genial, predictable gent in his late fifties, whilst Aunt Agatha seems to be a confirmed member of Hell's Grannies. Europe - the world even - seems to be littered with her conquests, with hardly a country passing by without some faded memory of hers coming back to life.
As it unfolds, Travels With My Aunt reveals itself as a true masterpiece of twentieth century fiction. The characters really do live through the century's history, but the events are never pressed onto the surface of their lives. On the contrary, they are entwined within the fabric of Aunt Augusta's being, a character whose complexity unfolds as the story progresses.
Throughout Henry Pulling is a truly comic character. He seems out of his depth, naïve, a product of an over-protected suburban existence, over-burdened with the assumptions of his upbringing. But he comes into his own and eventually it is no surprise when he describes his new life, which is almost as far removed from a suburban bank manager's office as it is possible to get. And, of course, the story's denouement, when it arrives, is also no surprise. And is not less because of that.
There are many laughs along the way, not least as a result of Henry's being constantly taken aback by his aunt's bluntness and lust for life. Particularly memorable, however, were scenes where Henry put his personal foot in it. On Paraguay's national day, he carries a red scarf on his aunt's advice so he can show allegiance to the ruling party and the dictator. He just happens to be outside the military and political headquarters when he sneezes and uses the scarf as a hankie. A nearby soldier records the snotting into the national emblem as deeply insulting and irreverent, duly beats him up and slaps him in jail. Situation comedy at its best.
Travels With My Aunt is quite simply a must read and must re-read book. Graham Greene's immense skill provides a simplicity of style and construction to communicate a complex plot alongside powerful characterisation, and all this accomplished with true but elegant economy. It is a beautifully crafted book, expertly written, full of surprises and humour, all set against a deadly serious plot: surely a masterpiece.