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"The story of a man who bought his life, the tenth man."
on January 30, 2005
One of Greene's "entertainments," this short novel written in 1944 was hidden away for nearly forty years before being discovered in the MGM files. Written as the idea for a film, the novella is a fine example of Greene's style, as finished and polished as any of his more complex novels.
Set in France during the war, the story concerns a group of thirty Frenchmen imprisoned by their German occupiers and then told that they must decide for themselves which three of the thirty men will be executed. One of the men who draws a marked ballot for his own death is a wealthy lawyer with considerable property who offers his entire fortune to any man who will take his place. One young man accepts, drawing up legal papers which give his newly acquired property to his sister and mother before he is executed.
The remaining three parts of the novel deal with the return of the now-penniless former owner to "his" house after the war, where he meets the dead man's sister and works as a servant under a new name; the arrival of an imposter who claims to be the former owner; and the showdown between the former owner and the imposter.
As is always the case with Greene, the dialogue is taut, revealing character and plot simultaneously, with no extraneous chat. The main character, like so many others Greene depicts, is a weak man whose bad choices, in this case his decision to buy his own life, have led to the complications which become the story. Living a lie, Chavel/Charlot faces a crisis of morality in which he must decide what, if anything, he can do to redeem himself to atone for the life-or-death decision he forced upon another man. The imposter who arrives at the house claiming to be the former owner is described as resembling a devil, and the showdown between him and the real former owner is seen as the struggle between goodness and evil.
Filled with ironies and absurdities, the novel maintains considerable suspense until the dramatic, tour de force of an ending. Too short to allow for much character development, the novella conveys a strong message within an exciting little morality tale filled with sharply observed details--simple without being simplistic. Mary Whipple