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The Captain and the Enemy (Penguin Classics) Paperback – August 30, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Exquisitely understated, moving and graced by humorous touches, Greene's new novel draws the reader into intriguing events related by narrator Victor Baxter. Now age 28, he tells of his 12th birthday when a stranger, "The Captain," takes him from school on an outing from which he never returns. The man says he won Victor from "the Devil, your father," and brings him to live in a drab London flat with Liza, who has lost a child. It's all right with the boy; his mother is dead and Baxter Sr. doesn't want him. He obeys the Captain's wishes to change his name to Jim and become Liza's son. Life with substitute parents is interrupted by the Captain's frequent absences on "jobs" that bring detectives to question the little family about money the Captain has sent them, but he remains free to pursue his suspicious enterprises. After many years, during a time when the adventurer has been on a secret operation in Panama, a letter arrives asking Liza to join him. Jim goes instead, however, for reasons he doesn't explain to the Captain, now known as Smith. A sly American called Quigly and others are dangerously interested in father and son. There is a shocking end to the story, whose core, revealed gradually through layers of mystery, speculates on the nature of love and the omnipotence of "the enemy," and has an unexpected connection to contemporary events. 40,000 first printing; $25,000 ad/promo; BOMC alternate.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The master's hand is clearly at work ("The New York Times")
The masters hand is clearly at work ("The New York Times")
The masteras hand is clearly at work ("The New York Times")
The master s hand is clearly at work ("The New York Times")
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From the beginning the story has a dismal feel. The characters seem doomed, not to disaster so much as to smallness. There's a kind of claustrophobia in the lives led by its narrator, Jim, his adoptive "father" the Captain, and the woman whom the Captain places Jim with as his "mother", Liza. For Liza and Jim, the smallness is physical -- Liza's life is almost completely confined to her basement apartment, infrequently visited by the Captain, and Jim lives in a vacant room in the same apartment building. Both are wary of the outside world, worried that the police, or Jim's Aunt, will discover them, their living situation, or a a clue to the Captain's whereabouts. The Captain, meanwhile, travels, and engages in mostly unknown criminal activities or con games, but even his life seems narrow-tracked in behavior if not in geography.
I gave scare quotes to "mother" and "father" as a hedge on the roles played by Liza and the Captain in Jim's life -- Jim's biological mother is no longer living when the story begins, and his father has lost Jim to the Captain in either a chess game or a backgammon game, depending on who you believe. The Captain takes Jim to live with Liza, to take the place of a baby lost to Liza in pregnancy, and her resulting inability to bear a child of her own.
Jim serves as a witness to Liza's life and relationship to the Captain -- a relationship he can't quite pin down. He notices that neither uses the word "love" to describe their relationship, and, to a boy with no one really playing the role of mother or father, their relationship fails to provide a model of anything at all. Liza longs for visits from the Captain, but the visits are infrequent and full of airy promises of a future, better life together.
Are the Captain and Liza in love? Jim doesn't know. Looking back as he has grown older, he still doesn't know how to characterize their relationship. It's not love as he comes to know it himself. We are left to wonder if what Jim experiences in his own life, though, is any more love than what exists between the Captain and Liza.
Jim himself becomes a writer, fitting his place throughout the book. His life presents him with no models to follow or roles to grow into, just a lot to observe and try to understand.
Greene is always a good writer, and the book rolls along. This story fits the pattern in which he takes the personal stories of his characters and plays them out in the context of big historical events -- here it is the turmoil of Panama and the rest of Central America during the 1970s, although those events only enter the story in its later parts.
There is also the "big" recurring presence of King Kong throughout the book. What place King Kong has in the book is for us to figure out. Here's my idea -- Kong is love made impossible. When the Captain sees Kong's "love" for Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) thwarted by the sheer nature of things, Jim can't understand why it brings tears to the Captain's eyes. It's just the way things are.