Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review of The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

The rebellions, coups, kidnappings, revolutions, putschs, and all out political chaos of Central and South America in the 20th century is well-documented.  It sometimes feels like, from the landing of the Spanish to Che Guevara, Noriega to Hugo Chavez, the land mass cannot escape politically motivated violence.  Visiting Argentina in the early 70s and witnessing the clash of ideologies first-hand, Graham Greene decided to use the experience to write a novel which would encapsulate the phenomena.  The Honorary Consul the result, indeed tragi-comedy is the perfect mode to encompass the all too human occurrences of the region.

Set in an intentionally fictional town up the River Plata from Buenos Aires, The Honorary Consul is the story of the half-Argentinian, half-British doctor, Eduardo Platt.  His father missing since he was ten, Platt spent most of his life with his mother, and after obtaining his medical degree, set her up in the capital city to live a life of peace and quiet while he remained behind in their hometown.  One of only three Brits in the small city, he often dines with another colleague, and when needed, provides assistance to the third, the British consul.  Charlie Fortnum his name, the job is in title only, his only actual pursuits being a daily measure of whiskey and driving his beat-up Land Rover through the fields of mate he oversees.  Life moving easily for Platt, all hell breaks looks when local guerrillas mistake Fortnum for the visiting American ambassador and kidnap him.  The story unraveling thereafter both absurd and tragic, the stories of the individual characters is where circumstances come alive. 

Though Fortnum’s kidnapping is the plot’s impetus, the hinge of tension between the consul and his physician is Clara.  A former prostitute at Senora Sanchez’s, the young native girl marries the aged Consul early in the story.  The marriage, however, does not preclude an affair with Platt.  The doctor friends with the local revolutionaries, when he is called in to help, his sympathies do not know which way to turn.  Not making this any easier is Leon, a tenuous ex-priest who sides with guerrillas, and it is in his attitude and posturing that Greene presents the religious implications, both personal and political, underlying the insurgency’s rebellion, including Clara. 

Dr. Saavedra, a novelist friend of Platt’s, is another significant character that adds to the novel’s layers of discussion.  In the early story he and Platt can be found in light conversation on the merits of literature.  Their discussion centers largely on the topic of Latin American machismo, particularly the lengths to which it drives the actions of men in the region.  Saavedra arguing for the poetic presentation of the idea, Platt remains skeptical, preferring a mimetic representation.  Dovetailing nicely, the climax of The Honorary Consul displays elements of both, simultaneously linking the viewpoints and adding a dimension of meta-fiction.

Possessing the relationship struggles of The End of the Affair, the religious quandaries of The Power & the Glory, and the political intrigue of The Quiet American, The Honorary Consul is in many ways an amalgam of Greene’s oeuvre.  Platt’s interaction with both sides of the conflict, local government to guerrillas, bears a strong similarity to Fowler’s position in The Quiet American.  Fowler essentially holds the life of the American in his hands, and through a combination of fate and free will, determines the outcome of the story.  With Platt overseeing Fortnum’s health, The Honorary Consul has much the same setup, though, to be open, the individuals’ fates in the two novels move through different waters.  Though Leon refrains from strong drink, his moral stance bears direct comparison to the peripatetic depravity of the ‘whiskey priest’ in The Power & the Glory.  Greene an open Catholic, his tendency to view the religion through human rather than ideological eyes lends a stronger degree of credibility to his narratives (unlike, for example, the works of C.S. Lewis or Gene Wolfe).  And lastly, while Platt’s affair with Fortnum’s wife does not form the lion’s share of content as it does in The End of the Affair, the overall approach to the subject of fornication and love remains as mature, if not more so.

In the end, The Honorary Consul, while not generally listed among the best of Greene’s works, nevertheless possesses all the subject matter and style of the author’s oeuvre.  Though ostensibly commentary on the seemingly perpetual state of political turmoil in Latin America and its inherent (ir)rationality, i.e. the conflict of values, the novel is the story of a doctor caught up in the vicious cycle of guerrilla warfare and political tactics of the region.  The absurdity of this premise plays out in all too human terms, easily placing the novel among Greene’s best.  For the tragi-comedy mood, Our Man in Havana is thus the novel’s closest contemporary.

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