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Book Review: The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Graham Greene, The Honorary Consul, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1973, 335 pgs. Featured photo at top of page by Agata Create.

The people and places in Graham Greene’s 1973 novel The Honorary Consul are shadows of their former selves. They struggle to retain or regain their humanity. We meet the priest who becomes a kidnapper, the novelist residing in a city that doesn’t read, the alcoholic honorary consul who knows his position is a sham, the fatherless British Latin American doctor who isn’t at home in either culture, the Marxist poet on the cusp of committing murder, and a small Argentinian town’s Italian Club, which has no Italians. Like many of Greene’s novels, this one explores existence in a type of tortured wasteland. As testimony to Greene’s skill as a novelist, we find ourselves immersed in scenes that vary from extraordinarily funny to poignant. The line dividing comic and tragic characters or situations is crossed all the time.

The young Dr. Eduardo Plarr’s medical practice is in a dreary Argentinian border town along the Paraná River. Each day, he faces this river that divides Argentina from Paraguay — the neighbouring country of his childhood where years ago his English father had been captured, tortured and imprisoned by President Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorial regime. At first, it isn’t clear if his father is dead or alive, but Plarr retains some semblance of hope. His ageing Paraguayan mother lives in distant Buenos Aires and tries to assuage her grief through gluttony — mostly by consuming eclairs and other pastries — and by hoarding trinkets in her stuffy apartment. Plarr is part of the modest border town’s local elite. This includes Britain’s Honorary Consul, Charley Fortnum, the novelist Dr. Saavedra, to some degree even the owner of the local brothel, Señora Sanchez, and the poverty-stricken, disgruntled literature teacher Humphries — who lives in a run-down hotel and only finds himself in this circle due to his status as a British expatriate.

As honorary consul, the ageing Fortnum is a liability and his position is largely irrelevant. His drunkenness is widely known. He displays a certain degree of self-importance, but in honest moments he’s keenly aware that he’s not actually part of Britain’s diplomatic service, holds no real power and displays little courage. He drives with unauthorized diplomatic license plates on his vehicle, sometimes flies the Union Jack upside down, and marries a prostitute called Clara — who is forty years younger. His source of pride is a Land Rover. He’s a pathetic, comic character who grows in seriousness and stature as the novel progresses.

When the American ambassador flies to the northern Argentinian town to visit some historic ruins, Fortnum is present to assist with the tour. Unbeknownst to any diplomat, however, a small group of Paraguayan rebels plans to abduct the American ambassador. The United States had helped to prop up Stroessner’s dictatorship in Paraguay and the kidnappers intended to hold the ambassador hostage in exchange for the release of ten political prisoners from Paraguayan prisons — including, we are to believe, Plarr’s father. Things don’t go according to plan. The rebels bungle the hostage-taking and confuse Fortnum for the American ambassador. Fortnum is drugged and held hostage in a mud hut, at an undisclosed location, where he sleeps on top of a coffin. The life of a British honorary consul, however, is far less valuable than that of a US ambassador. And in the case of someone like Fortnum, a combination of disinterest on the part of Britain’s Foreign Office and the belief that he’s been more trouble than he’s worth means there is no incentive to negotiate with the kidnappers.

Plarr discovers that one of the hostage-takers, Father León Rivas, is a childhood friend of his from Asunción, Paraguay. Father Rivas had been stripped of his priestly faculties for breaking his vow of celibacy and for being a political rebel. But the novel operates on the Catholic principle of “once a priest, always a priest.” The two had attended the same Jesuit school and Rivas, even as a boy the more theologically-oriented one, had explained to Plarr the famously difficult concept of the Trinity. While Plarr is an emotionally repressed man convinced that cold reason always trumps one’s feelings, he does feel a moral obligation to intervene on Fortnum’s behalf and to free him. At the same time, he faces a dilemma. The kidnapper is a friend and the ransom, if successful, could free his long-lost father.

While Plarr is a deeply flawed character, he’s also likeable. He cultivates an image of being a cold fish and claims to be incapable of love and empathy. Yet a big part of his medical practice is to care for the forgotten communities, often Indigenous, living in huts on the edge of town, in the barrio. When Fortnum is captured, Plarr racks his brain for ways to free him. But he’s certainly no saint. He sleeps with Fortnum’s wife, Clara, after buying her a pair of sunglasses that she had wanted. And he does so again immediately after her husband is kidnapped.

One of the recurring themes in Greene’s novels is that of sinners engaged in extraordinary acts of compassion and love for the other. Fortnum displays genuine concern for the well-being of his new and pregnant wife, even though their initial encounter in a brothel, as client and prostitute, was merely transactional. Plarr, for his part, goes to great lengths and considerable risk to help Fortnum, and Father León Rivas’ act of terrorism is driven by rage against what he sees as grave injustice in his homeland — especially against the most vulnerable. Even the naive, youthful Clara — who doesn’t feel romantic love for her much older and unattractive husband — struggles honestly with her feelings of not wanting Fortnum to return home, but also not wishing him any harm. She must also come to terms with her pregnancy, and the fact that the father isn’t her husband.

As Plarr struggles to find a way to save Fortnum, it becomes clear that this man who claims not to feel anything increasingly sees in the honorary consul a surrogate father figure. And in a very nice touch, the childless Fortnum begins to almost see in Plarr a son. As well, Plarr’s friendship with Father Rivas is both put to the test, as well as rekindled. Plarr displays care and concern for two men — Fortnum and Rivas — whose destinies become intertwined in a moment in time that only one might survive.

While the first half of the novel progresses at a swift pace, the last half delves deep into philosophical and theological dialogues. Greene uses these reflections and dialogues to flesh out his characters. I enjoyed the depth of this section — which was invariably insightful, provocative and beautifully written. I wonder how a reader who isn’t theologically or philosophically-inclined would experience this. In one such dialogue between Plarr and León Rivas, the disgraced priest notes that it is a father’s responsibility to provide. Plarr, an agnostic, pushes back:

“And God the Father, León? He doesn’t provide much. I asked last night if you still believed in him. To me he has always seemed a bit of a swine. I would rather believe in Apollo. At least he was beautiful.”

“The trouble is we have lost the power to believe in Apollo,” Father Rivas said. “We have Jehovah in our blood. We can’t help it. After all these centuries Jehovah lives in our darkness like a worm in the intestines.”

Greene, himself a Catholic balancing between faith and agnosticism much of his life, always speaks of faith in the most striking, memorable and challenging ways. Father Rivas, continuing his conversation with Plarr, says:

“Christ was a man, even if some of us believe that he was God as well. It was not the God the Romans killed, but the man. A carpenter from Nazareth. Some of the rules He laid down were only the rules of a good man. A man who lived in his own province, in his own particular day. He had no idea the kind of world we would be living in now. Render unto Caesar, but when our Caesar uses napalm and fragmentation bombs…The Church lives in time too. Only sometimes, for a short while, for some people…I think sometimes the memory of that man, that carpenter, can lift a few people out of the temporary Church of these terrible years, when the Archbishop sits down to dinner with the General, into the great Church beyond our time and place, and then…those lucky ones…they have no words to describe the beauty of that Church.”

In his dialogues and reflections with Plarr, Rivas describes a God who haunts humankind, who is programmed into our DNA and who we cannot escape. Plarr, however, pushes back with anger — what a horror of a God his friend worships. Dr. Plarr shares with Rivas:

“I have seen a child born without hands and feet. I would have killed it if I had been left alone with it, but the parents watched me too closely — they wanted to keep the bloody torso alive. The Jesuits used to tell us it was our duty to love God. A duty to love a God who produces that abortion? It’s like the duty of a German to love Hitler. Isn’t it better not to believe in that horror up there sitting in the clouds of heaven than pretend to love him?”

Rivas then responds:

“It may be better not to breathe, but all the same I cannot help breathing. Some men, I think, are condemned to belief by a judge just as they are condemned to prison. They have no choice, no escape. They have been put behind the bars for life.”

Contemporary political realities, which Greene followed keenly, serve as an undercurrent in this novel. We see depicted once mighty Great Britain’s political decline on the world stage, now reduced to a junior player next to the United States. There are references to the political resistance and social justice campaigns of Jesuits and other Catholic clergy in Latin America, when faced with repressive, authoritarian regimes. Equally, through the eyes of Father Rivas, we see how archbishops sometimes collaborate with repressive rulers. And the striking socio-economic disparities in Latin America, which Greene visited several times, are on full display in The Honorary Consul. On a lighter level, Greene pokes at the cultural differences between English and American culture — the famous Anglo-American divide. When Fortnum arrives to assist with the American ambassador’s tour, he brings liquor — not realizing that America’s top diplomat drinks nothing but Coca Cola, and always travels with a case of it.

At the heart of the novel is a single phrase that appears buried amidst the reflective dialogue in the second half of the book. “Caring is the only dangerous thing,” we read. And indeed, the entire novel is about how people, worn out by the cruelties of life and forced into a culture of machismo, find themselves engaged in acts of care and self-sacrifice for the other — often in extraordinary ways.

Published inBook Reviews

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