Honorary Consul, The
by Graham Greene (1973)
Unfortunately I read this just after The End of the Affair and it suffers by comparison. Despite having some of the same qualities — an affair, various crises of faith, a jaded protagonist — the prose is less inspired, the characters more poorly drawn, and the components never really gel into a satisfactory whole. And strangely, the addition of a political crime to the plot doesn’t do enough to differentiate it from its superior predecessor (see my review). It really seems more like a muddied rehash.
The prose is still impeccable of course, but then again Greene is known perhaps above all as a consummate craftsman. Here it is not as soaring or poetic as it was in Affair, though it is still more than serviceable. And again we have the Catholic question which makes an appearance late in the game, also as in Affair. Here it is both clumsier and more intrusive, and it seems to interfere with the authenticity of the characters. For example, what are the chances that six different people, two Brits and four South-Americans, will all be sufficiently preoccupied with the faith question to sustain a pages-long discussion on it in the midst of a tense kidnapping?
The issue was particularly problematic with Charley Fortnum’s character, who from early characterizations I never believed would actually worry about anything related to Catholicism. Also inconsistent with his character was the cunning he displayed once captured. Greene spent too long in the beginning convincing me Fortnum was a doddering drunkard to make this new characteristic at all credible.
But reading two Greene novels back to back helps me appreciate some of his less obvious writing tendencies as well. One thing I begin to notice is that he mostly uses the same protagonist, merely transplanted to different settings. Eduardo Plarr is, essentially, Maurice Bendrix (Affair) is Henry Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) is Thomas Fowler (The Quiet American): a British, cynical, lonely, adulterous, lapsed Catholic who is angry at God. The two novels I’ve read whose protagonists don’t fit this mold are The Power and the Glory and Monsignor Quixote, however the doubtful priests of those books are similar the one to the other.
So maybe he only has two different protagonist “types,” the cynical Brit or the whiskey priest? Noticing this punctures a little of the mystique that Greene has garnered in my eyes, however it’s not the worst quality in an author to be unable to invent original protagonists in each effort. If anything it’s understandable that Greene had difficulties escaping his own lens when penning his anti-heroes. And the similarities between characters help highlight the differences in stories, some of them (Affair, Quiet American) being far superior to the others.
One other thing I’ve noticed in these last two novels is just how much Greene toys with his stories’ structures, usually to great success. The layout of his novels, both chronologically and narratively, are anything but intuitive, yet they inevitably serve to reveal the story in the most suspenseful and organic way possible. There’s something really innovative about his structure, yet it’s never flashy and always feels like it serves the story first and foremost.
To sum up, this feels like one of Greene’s “lesser” novels, whereas I consider Affair, Quiet American and Power/Glory to be his “greaters”, in that order. It is mostly engaging but feels more like a retread than anything else I’ve read of his, and I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone who’s not an avowed Greene fan.