on 22 December 2011
This book typifies what many people have labelled as `Greeneland': a tragi-comic world (usually more tragic than comic) in which people are confronted by awkward choices which require them to examine or re-examine their values and which often lead them to behave in ways which they would previously have rejected. The book is set in Argentina, where the British honorary consul, Charles Fortnum, is kidnapped by a group who threaten to kill him unless a group of Paraguayan political prisoners is released. Unfortunately for Fortnum, he is so unimportant that none of Britain, Argentina and Paraguay cares about his fate. His only ally is Eduardo Plarr, a half-British doctor who has been friendly with Fortnum but who has also been having an affair with Fortnum's much younger wife Clara. Clara is pregnant; the baby is Plarr's but Fortnum knows nothing of the affair and so assumes that it is his. Plarr pleads Fortnum's case with the kidnappers, whose leader, Leon Rivas, is a lapsed Catholic priest with whom Plarr used to be friendly. Both Plarr and Rivas find themselves in `Greeneland': Plarr is a cold, unemotional man who is forced to re-evaluate his feelings for both Fortnum and Clara; as for Rivas, the prospect of having to murder Fortnum brings his religious faith increasingly into conflict with his political objectives. Lighter moments are provided by some of the more minor characters, especially Saavedra, a mediocre but self-important Argentinian author.
This is one of my favourite Greene novels. It is a clever mix of an adventure story about a kidnapping that goes wrong, and a literary novel about love, faith and moral values. Although Plarr is the book's central character, in many ways Fortnum is its most engaging character - an ageing, morose alcoholic who wants to find some purpose in his life and who is never quite sure whether or not Clara is the key to his doing so. For all his faults, he is a more likeable character than anyone else in the book. The South American setting was used by Greene in some of his other books (e.g. The Power And The Glory) and here, as elsewhere, he paints an interesting picture of a superficially sedate society in which violence lurks not very far away and in which the male characters (except for Fortnum) are driven by machismo in sometimes comic, and often unfortunate, ways.
Greene initially divided his work into two categories: `serious' books and `entertainments'. He put this book into the latter category. Later in his life he abandoned the distinction. I think he was right to do so because it's surely a false distinction: a book can be both entertaining and serious, and this book achieves that. I don't think it's his best book but it's quite near the top of the list.
on 21 August 2003
South America in the 1970s. A group of revolutionaries plan to highlight their cause by kidnapping the American ambassador. Unfortunately, they get it wrong and kidnap instead Charley Fortnum, a boozy expatriate Briton whose quasi-official status as an honorary consul amunts to little more than the right to import and sell a car every two years. Dr Plarr, one of only two other Britons in the city, is involved from the start: not only was it he who provided the revolutionaries with their information, but he is also having an affair with Fortnum's young wife. Though this is more sombre in tone than some of Greene's other 'entertainments', there is much wry humour in these pages, but what struck me most was the degree of emotional involvement Greene manages to produce in what could easily have been a cynical tale of unprincipled behaviour and bungling. The novel takes us down a dark road, and I found some of the later scenes really quite sad, but I hope I'm not giving too much away by saying that the road leads eventually to redemption - of a kind.
on 14 February 2007
With all due respect to the in house reviewer I would like to assure all potential readers of this fine novel that it is in no way a political book. The politics referred to serve to bring the characters together. At no point in the novel does Greene investigate any of the characters' politics. Nor does he analyse the political situation in Paraguay and Argentina where the novel is set.
It is a novel about love; about the inability to love and the nature of love. It's about the nature of god and how the protagonists have to come to terms with the difficult idea that god is both good and evil. It's about the nature of the catholic church; the complicated nature of human beings. It's about that favourite paradox of Green's that very often those seemingly furthest from redemption, humanity and god are in fact the closest to them.
It's a beautiful book aching with humanity- our foibles, our goodness and our badness. But please don't call it a political book. Greene would have had a fit. It is after all the novel he most preferred of all those he wrote.
on 17 November 2012
Unlike most Greene books, I did not detect a morally-uplifting ending here, although some argue that Dr. Plarr, the central character, died for a purpose.
The book is set in an obscure part of N.Argentina in the 1970's. The honorary British consol, Charlie Fortnum, is kidnapped by a bungling group of Paraguayan guerillas, in mistake for an American diplomat. Plarr knows the leader of the rebels (a former Catholic priest) and has previously agreed to help them. To confuse matters, Fortnum's wife is Plarr's mistress, and she is pregnant with his child. The rebels had intended to use the American hostage as ransom for the release of imprisoned colleagues back home, but, naturally, the British consol has no bargaining weight.
Eventually, the rebels are surrounded and dealt with, Fortnum being freed unharmed. Plarr, having voluntarily left the safety of their hut to try to negotiate, was executed. Was Plarr offering himself to provide Fortnum and his wife with a future?
The ending is unsatisfactory, but it is a good story, marred by over-long religious discussions(and symbolism) on the meaning of love, life etc. between Plarr and the priest. Such discussions are commonplace in Greene books, but, somehow seem unnecessary and incongruous here.
on 27 October 2012
What is it about the Catholic Church that sets a certain kind of Englishman off into the kind of lengthy speculations about the meaning of life that the English usually regard as too abstract for their stolid John Bull minds?
Chesterton, Waugh, Tolkien - even Tony Blair, for Pete's sake - and Greene are only a few of those who converted to Catholicism. I would also include Anthony Burgess in parenthesis in this list although he was a (lapsed) Catholic.
Greene made a career out of portraying anguished Catholics whose daily lives were plagued by the paraphernalia of Holy Mother Church - priests, masses, vestments, bells, missals and candles.
Greene's Catholics are not remotely like normal Catholics who accept their faith in a matter of fact way, have breakfast, go to mass and take Holy Communion, and otherwise get on with their lives.
"The Honorary Consul" is one of Greene's most enjoyable books set against a typical exotic Greeneland background - South America, continent of guerrillas, military despots, downtrodden Indians and, of course, the heavy hand of the Catholic Church everywhere.
It has some splendid comic episodes and a couple of memorable characters, such as the honorary consul himself, Charley Fortnum, the Argentina novelist, Saavedra, and the crusty English exile, Humphries, all living in obscurity in an obscure town in northern Argentina on the border with Paraguay.
All of this is marred by the gloomy hero, Eduardo Plarr, a half-English doctor who gets involved with a bunch of incompetent guerillas who kidnap Fortnum after mistaking him for the American ambassador.
Unfortunately for the reader, one of the guerrillas is a former priest and this sparks dozens of pages of dialogue between him and Plarr with comments like: "I believe in the evil of God but I believe in His goodness too." and "It would be a mortal sin for you to kill him now Father. After the Mass."
Greene has never been good at creating serious women and the three main women are caricatures - Dr Plarr's mother scoffing cream cakes in tearooms in Buenos Aires, a childlike prostitute who is not only Fortnum's wife but Plarr's mistress, and the "wife" of the ex-priest who wants him to dress up in his vestments and say Mass again.
Otherwise, an excellent read.
on 6 March 2011
Never thought I'd give an 'average' review to a Graham Greene novel, but that's how it feels: average. Average only to a great author's standards of course, which is pretty high all the same, but it seems as though he's just treading old ground here.
If you're a dedicated fan there is absolutely no reason not to read this, but if you're only just discovering the author, pick up another of his works to start with.
on 3 July 2015
I'm a Greene fan, but this novel is a stinker. Rather than go through the book in detail, I'd simply suggest you to think to yourself as you read: "If someone was writing a parody of a Graham Greene novel, would it be exactly like this?" It's all in there, the failed priest, a clunky fathers and sons metaphor, a few rather obvious Spanish words to add colour ('machismo' for God's sake - and I use the phrase advisedly), guilty sex, the police officer who's good in a bad system, glaring attempts to inform the reader what the nasty CIA have been doing in Paraguay etc and above all endless, completely unbelievable theological discussions as 90 percent of the characters from all backgrounds are as obsessed with the failings of Catholicism as Greene and debate amongst themselves accordingly.
A most bizarre moment comes very close to the end when for no apparent reason the authorial voice makes an appearance in parentheses having studiously avoided saying anything for the previous 300 pages in the line: '"I was afraid of being alone. I went to sleep with Maria." (Maria was the maid.)' What the hell?
Several times Greene pokes fun at the forgotten and rather pompous novelist Saavedra in the book, but The Honorary Consul sadly is even worse than Saavedra's tales of grim peasants stabbing each other.
As soon as I had finished THC I turned to Travels With My Aunt to remind myself what a great Greene actually is.
on 19 December 2010
Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul is a deceptively ambitious project. And this applies as much to the reading of this great work as to its writing. The novel addresses some great themes on a multiplicity of levels and in every case succeeds in both illustrating issues and provoking thought via a deceptively simple story of kidnap and espionage.
The Honorary Consul is set in Argentina. We are in the north, far from the sophistication of cities, on the banks of the Paraná River, cheek by jowl with Paraguay. And over that border there is the iron-fisted rule of the General, an oppression that has created a social orderliness based on fear and persecution.
About twenty years ago, a victim of that oppression, an Englishman resident in Paraguay, put his wife and young son onto a ferry to Argentina. He stayed behind to rejoin the struggle and was not heard of again. The wife took up residence in Buenos Aires and devoted herself to gossip and sweet eating. The son, Eduardo Plarr, went to medical school, qualified and, at the start of the novel, is practising his profession in that small, provincial, northern town. His thoughts regularly cross the river to contemplate his father's possible fate. It is by virtue of his father's nationality that Eduardo calls himself English.
Eduardo is one of just three English residents in the town. Humphries used to be a teacher, while the third, Charles Fortnum, has the title of Honorary Consul. His role is minimal, of course, and his status is less than that. But he ekes a few bob out of the role by the resale of the new car he has a right to import every two years.
Charles is a heavy drinker, preferring whisky of all types, but willing to drink almost anything in the right measure. He and the other two English residents frequent the same bars, restaurants and brothels, and so they also share the same sources of pleasure. Eduardo is surprised to learn that Charles, a sixty-year-old slob, has married one of the girls - a twenty-year-old stripling - from their favoured haunt. He wonders how it will all work long before he becomes her doctor and thereby provides the most thorough examination that medical science knows. When she falls pregnant, she at least is sure whose child it is.
And then one day visitors from Paraguay bring news of Eduardo's father. They have a plan. There is to be a visit by the American ambassador. Charles will actually have to do something. There is to be a visit to a local site. The group of opportunistic Paraguayans plan a kidnap. They will hold the ambassador until named detainees in Paraguay, Eduardo's father amongst them, are released. They carry out their threat, but bungle it. As Charles Fortnum's car passed by, they mistook his CC plate for CD and thereby kidnapped the wrong man. Instead of an American ambassador, they have a merely an honorary consul, and one without much honour. El Tigre, their remote, anonymous commander is clearly not pleased. We never get to know much about El Tigre, but then perhaps we know more than we think.
As ever in Graham Greene, the characters are presented with moral dilemmas. In The Honorary Consul these span the domestic, the religious, the familial and the political. A short review can do no justice to either the complexity of the ideas or the economy and subtlety of the writer's treatment of them. Tragedies ensue and there is even a happy ending of sorts.
A former priest - there's no such thing as a former priest! - grapples with the contradictions of liberation theology on the one hand and the obedience demanded of servile duty on the other. Graham Greene does not resolve all the dilemmas he raises. Good writing, after all, is not about answering questions. But it does necessarily involve asking the right ones. The Honorary Consul is the work of a writer of genius at the height of his powers. It is also the work of a man with a keen sense of politics and morality. And it is also surely one of the few books that all people should list as a must read.
"The Honorary Consul," apparently the 23d novel by Graham Greene, written rather later in his long career, might, perhaps, crassly be described as a bleak, slow thriller. But, of course, that leaves so much out. The book is set in a provincial Argentine town, in the late 1960's, early 1970's. The town is on one side of the Parana, a great muddy river; on the other side lies Paraguay, which, at the time, is suffering under the bloodthirsty military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. Argentina, on the other hand, has not yet experienced the bloody military coup that will leave it suffering under extraordinarily bloodthirsty tyranny for many years.
The foreign colony of this provincial Argentine city is small. Principal among the residents is Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician, born in Paraguay to a local Latin woman: his English father has vanished into one of Stroessner's prisons. Charley Fortnum, the title character, an honorary consul,is a man of sixty-one who drinks heavily, and has just married Clara, a twenty-year old girl from Senora Sanchez's brothel, the town's only cultural center. Also important in the town is Saavedra, an Argentinean novelist, who sometimes appears to be speaking for his creator. However, the Argentinean publishes lugubrious works that mirror the Latin American obsession with "machismo" that impacts the entire town, and continent. Then there is Colonel Perez, the frightening, knowledgeable, efficient, intuitive local policeman with hooded, sunglass-hidden eyes. Throw in a radical priest or two, some terrorists, and Greene has created a vivid, accurate picture of Latin America at the time.
Fortnum is kidnapped by Paraguayan revolutionaries who meant to take the American ambassador. However, the terrorists decide to make the best of the situation, and threaten to kill the Englishman anyway, if their demands for the release of political prisoners -- one of them Plarr's father--are not met. Needless to say, Plarr is torn, especially since one of the terrorists is an old school friend of his. And Plarr had become the lover of Fortnum's wife. Greene's writing is compact, terse, brilliant in its description of the physical and emotional landscape of his portrait of troubled people, time and place.
The writer traveled widely, as a journalist, and to research his novels. He had great serendipity in his wanderings: many of them occurred at critical times. Obviously, he was in Argentina at a rather fraught time. His sojourn in Mexico produced two books, including the famous The Power and the Glory. The Cuban-set Our Man in Havana was published in October, 1956; on New Years Day 1959 the revolutionary Castro came down from the Cuban mountains to sweep into power. Greene set his Vietnamese war novel, The Quiet American, just before the important battle of Dien Bien Phu. He set The Comedians, in the last days of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's tyrannical Haiti regime.
Greene (1904-1991), who was one of the more illustrious British writers of the 20th century, enjoyed a very long life, and a very long, distinguished, prolific writing career. Many of his books were bestsellers; many were made into movies. He was one of the better-known Catholic converts of his time; many of his thrillers, as this one, deal with Catholic themes of guilt and redemption. At the outset of his career, he famously divided his work into novels - the heavier, more philosophical works, and the lighter entertainments. Nobody would call "The Honorary Consul" a light entertainment; nevertheless, it has the author's usual concise wit, and, although its outlook is bleak, the pleasures of reading it are many.
on 3 March 2015
Having read a few espionage/foreign service thrillers, notably John Le Carré and Charles Cumming), it is apparent just how much the genre owes to Graham Greene, and not simply his “entertainments”. In particular, the theme of betrayal – most memorably betrayal of individuals by their governments and other employers – comes through and in the best novels of the genre (all of Greene’s and most of Le Carré) in an underlying or pervasive way, rather than explicitly. In “The Honorary Consul” (1973), the UK foreign office is in the background and determined to stay that way when Charley Fortnum – merely an Honorary and not a real Consul – is mistakenly kidnapped by a revolutionary group which crossed the border from Paraguay into a provincial Argentinian town intent on kidnapping a visiting US ambassador. The group – “a failed poet, an excommunicated priest, a pious woman, and a man who weeps” – are as imprisoned as is Fortnum. They are trapped by lack of political power and by the hold of machismo and Catholicism on South American culture. These three points of reference also account for the stereotyping of women in this novel.
Although Fortnum finds his voice eventually, and assumes a status above his “official” title which transcends the actions and attitudes of the British bureaucrats in Buenos Aires and London, his helplessness during his captivity brings Dr Eduardo Plarr to the centre of the novel. Dr Plarr is similar in many respects to Fowler, the melancholic and unwilling central figure in The Quiet American. The conflicts and tensions of the novel and the society, with its expatriate supplements, meet in Dr Plarr. There is also a sub-plot involving Clara, who marries Fortnum after working in a brothel but is having an affair with Plarr.
The anguished debates over Catholicism grate but, that apart, “The Honorary Consul” treads the difficult but critical line between tragedy and comedy that is so typical of many of Greene’s novels.