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This is a well-written story combining the elements of a political/spy novel with those of a Greek tragedy. Set in Argentina, Greene tells the tale of a botched political kidnapping which provides the context for an interesting character study. The ineptitude of Greene's kidnappers and their gradual self-destruction, to me, symbolized the disarray and tumult in the lives of each character. Greene's interesting cast of characters includes a chameleon-like prostitute who tailors her personality to accommodate the varying expectations and inadequacies of her clients, a fallen priest who cannot seem to shed his former skin, a marginalized novelist who is crippled by his pride, an emotionless doctor whose heart is as sterile as his instruments, and an inconsequential "honorary" consul who fails at everything except loving. This novel is by no means cheery, but I came away from it with an important reminder that life is lived in vain if lived without having loved--even if that love is unrequited.
"The Honorary Consul" is the first Graham Greene novel I've read, and it is easy to see why Greene has earned so many devoted fans and seemingly over-the-top superlatives over his long career.
Based on this novel, Greene's strength seems to be creating a rich cast of characters, full of different tics, scars, dreams, virtues, and flaws, and dropping them into a plot of balanced tragedy and farce. By stirring great ingredients into a delicious recipe, Greene created a novel to savour and one, I would bet, improves with each reading.
Set in an anonymous border town just on the Argentine side of Paraguay, "The Honorary Consul" focuses on the hapless, accidental kidnapping of Charley Fortnum, the titular honorary consul. A band of revolutionaries, lethally inept, swipe the British Fortnum instead of their target, the American ambassador, whom they wanted to exchange for political prisoners in the Paraguayan dictatorship nearby. Unfortunately for the kidnappers, Fortnum's title is more impressive than his station, and nobody is all that eager to save Fortnum, much less give in to the kidnappers' demands.
Further adding to the travesty of the situation, Fortnum's only connection to the outside world is Dr. Plarr, a half-British, half Argentinian physician who is also having an affair with Fortnum's wife, a former prostitute. Plarr, whose father vanished into the Paraguayan prison system years ago, is a man incapable of emotion -- when it comes to relationships, he's good at the physics but not the chemistry.
Plarr struggles to help the innocent Fortnum escape his looming fate -- if ten political prisoners are not released from Paraguay, the kidnappers will shoot Fortnum.Read more ›
At their best, Greene's novels put ordinary men in difficult moral situations. Then, his characters make heroic, but often self-defeating, moral choices. These great novels include THE POWER AND THE GLORY, THE HEART OF THE MATTER, THE QUIET AMERICAN, and THE COMEDIANS. Read them.
In THE HONORARY COUNSUL, Greene also creates difficult moral situations for his primary characters. But, in this novel, the dilemmas of Father Rivas and Dr. Plarr are without Greene's usual deft balance between choice and disaster.
Instead, Greene creates moral situations that appear doomed almost from the book's beginning. As a result, the choices that Rivas and Plarr make don't seem especially heroic. Instead, these characters seem to be caught in a death machine, which is indifferent to their personal dilemmas.
To a large extent, they are like Charley Fortnum, the novel's honorary counsel, who is kidnapped mistakenly by political revolutionaries. Here, Fortnum, despite lots of misery and recrimination, is basically waiting for the denouement, as the death machine grinds forward.
In Greene's great books, there is also the pleasure of seeing characters move through time and place. In contrast, much of this novel is conversation, with Greene making his points. Many of these are about moral responsibility. But others just seem "writerly", with Greene developing endless ironic connections between apparently dissimilar characters.
Nonetheless, this is a good read and a rewarding book, with the best scene the querulous formation of the Anglo-Argentinean Club.
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.Read more ›