Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review of The Honorary Consul, by Graham Greene

The Honorary Consul, published later in Graham Greene's career, is not listed among his major works (at least by the tools at Wikipedia). This is probably why I was able to nail a hardback for a buck from the Friends of the Library, but evidently it was one of the author's favorites, and also one of his most personally challenging. I can see how the way it's constructed might defy momentum. Greene asks, basically, "What if they started a political incident, and nobody came?" It's not the sort of question that keeps the reader (or, presumably, the writer) insatiably ripping through pages in search of a resolution. It's context is northern Argentina in the 1970s, and Paraguayan dissidents, in an attempt to coerce (the American-supported) General Stroessner to release political prisoners, have attempted to kidnap the American ambassador as he visits ruins south of the Paraná (South America has fabulous proper nouns), but have instead wound up with an irrelevant local British diplomat.

With a political anticlimax practically built in, the tension must play out on personal levels, and it's as if Greene upped the challenge with his variously disaffected protagonists too. The usual fault of novelists creating ambivalent characters is that they're either completely unsympathetic or completely unlikable (Robertson Davies is the first offender that comes to mind here, but I'm sure I can think of others), but Eduardo Plarr, the unemotional physician who is tangled in the intrigue by virtue of childhood ties, and Charley Fortnum, the sentimental drunk (and honorary consul), are both easy to relate to. Especially Plarr--Fortnum could get annoying, but the doctor comes off as a man with whom it would be comfortable to pass time. People are drawn to him, but the company he prefers is with others that are similarly distant and self-involved. It's a manifestation of the stiff English half of his heritage, and Plarr, like all of the characters, is to some extent a stereotype, but there's a difference between making up complicated individuals that represent some notions of national character and using ethnicity as an unflattering shortcut.

Likewise, Plarr's occupation may either have been a facile characterization or a brilliant inspiration. Everywhere, he shows a detachment from the moral concerns of family and of the hardship of living that could be best called clinical: analytical, and strangely incurious. It's not a defense mechanism with Plarr, it's his basic constitution, and scribbling off a prescription he has no confidence in, or making a snap judgement based on some hurried palpation is in character (even if those acts didn't show his medical training in convincing detail). Plarr is not an empathetic man, but he is accessible. He has childhood friends, difficult parents, he has opinions, close connections to atrocity, fond memories, things that make him angry, even if only people's annoying tendency to care about life's petty theater.

And he reads fiction (writers writing about reading is always a little precious) but the Argentine predilection for melodrama makes the local literature (the literature not written by Borges anyway) difficult for him to swallow. Greene takes great care to draw out and ostensibly revile South American versions of machismo, but Plarr makes a poor opposite to his own notions of that stoic and formulaic melancholy. (He is, it's made clear, only half English.) His solitary suffering is not so far removed from the noble gauchos of the Argentine litererary universe. It is amusing that his sexual feelings are dispatched as efficiently as the self-serious local writer's, and when he develops an attraction to a prostitute, even that is only on an intellectual level. Quite possibly her own job skill of clinically returning her clients' desires is what draws him. He treats women selfishly, but it's too easy to call it misogyny. He's aware of others' individuality, but only in the abstract.

Cleverly, Charley Fortnum makes a better contrast to Plarr than the Spanish-speaking nationals from which he (Plarr) feels apart. Fortnum is an alcoholic, overly friendly, and, if he were given to self-examination, deeply lonely, and he projects his simple emotion onto every person he meets, some English version of forced bonhomie and patronizing affection. Fortnum has married the prostitute, now pregnant with Plarr's child, and the doctor is too detached to care, and Fortnum too simple to suspect and too sentimental to hold it against him. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that they meet and conflict over the relationship, and despite the fact that they don't meet minds any more than anyone does, they get closest, as opposites, to fulfilling one another than anyone else in the novel. I don't know that the story is always perfectly paced, but the conclusion and the coda are spot on, and they bring the themes brilliantly together.

I would call this book, above all, a love story, or entwined love stories. Greene plays off it on several levels--it's subtly glimpsed in almost every minor character, from the married priest-turned-dissident, to the British ambassador, even to the blind old man that accidentally walks in on the kidnapping, they all work around a similar depressing theme of love as scripted comedy (as Plarr calls it), which rarely involves seeing past your own projected image and unlikely ideals, even when the others' need is uncomplicated. The occasional actual connection is poignant... and unlikely to redeem a goddamn thing.


Thomas Paine said...

Damned good review. I have not read the book for a few years, but as I remember it, you got it pretty much spot on.

You have inspired me to reread it.

Keifus said...

It's only the second Graham Greene book I've read. I wanted to go on more about his tendency to typecast people by ethnicity, but couldn't exactly generalize about it. It seems hard to develop something like that with honesty, but I guess Greene, with his interesting biography, would have a pretty good understanding of how cultures shape people if anyone would.