Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

I was sixteen and had finally acquired what you might call a social life — in other words regular weekend activities involving members of the opposite sex — when it was suggested by the gatekeepers of said activities (the girls) that we should all go to see Richard Gere in the 1984 film version of The Honorary Consul at the Kensington Odeon.

While it might in some ways have been a girl's film — thanks in no small part to the now familiarly naked torso of Mr Gere — but Greene's novel is essentially a man's book, a book about men making their way within a culture of machismo, men belaboured with the memories of dead fathers (and in some cases dead great grandfathers), men that frequent the local brothel in search of so much more than 'relief', and men willing to suffer poverty and pain in the pursuit of a vocation, be it politics, literature or the right measure of whisky.

It's not hard to see why Greene was so pleased with this late work. It's less tortured and tortuous than The Power and the Glory — Catholic guilt-lite if you like — and yet possesses a depth which it wears rather lightly as he cloaks it in the shiny outer-garment of a first rate thriller plot.

At least until the last 40 pages or so where it morphs into a rather dismal cassock and the Catholic trauma comes to the fore in this final, less worldly section, most particularly in the person of 'Father' Rivas, sadly little more than a cipher for Greene's own battle with the notions of hope, sacrifice and sin and a God who ought to be pitied as well as worshiped.

It's all a bit over-egged, but I did like the exposition of a God in need of redemption: "I believe God is suffering the same evolution that we are, but perhaps with more pain," León suggests to Eduardo at one stage when the game is almost up. (Take note too of Aquino the Marxist's position: "Of course God is evil. God is capitalism. Lay up treasures in heaven - they will bring you a hundred per cent interest for eternity.")

Anyway, as I recall the movie was of course a lot more interested in this plot than it was in character. I hadn't seen a Richard Gere movie before this one, so had little in the way of expectation except that I'd been told to expect some cooing from our female companions. I couldn't say he was at all mis-cast as 'cold fish' Eduardo Plarr, but from what I remember now, Michael Caine didn't quite achieve the nuanced performance of Fortnum that Greene's text calls for.

I've had this first edition hardback copy for many years, since the day I found it on my father's bookshelf. He denies ownership and we have concluded from the name signed on the page inside the cover, that it must have belonged to a long passed friend of my mother's who rather foolishly opted to lend it to her.

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