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Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Honorary Consul (1973) by Graham Greene

Book Review
The Honorary Consul (1973)
 by Graham Greene

   The Honorary Consul was a late-career highlight for Graham Greene, who many thought was done after a very quiet 1960's.  When you consider that he wrote classics like The Power and The Glory and The Third Man in the 1940's, it's hard not to marvel at his continued vitality over the decades.  To summarize an entire life time of work, Greene is at the top of the chart in the categories of "Catholic novelists" and "Spy novelists."   Obviously, both are but crude summaries of infinitely complicated ideas worked out over a career of popular and critically well received work, but Greene was a little before his time in terms of the spy novel part of his career- more a fore-father then someone, say, like Ian Fleming, who raked it in.

  On the other hand, his experience as an English convert to Catholicism has proved durable, and I would argue it is those books, and the books that overlap Catholicism and espionage, that are his enduring contribution to the canon.  I think that the 1001 Books staff would agree, seeing as one of the few Greene books to be cut between 2006 and 2008 is The Third Man, about as classic a work of spy fiction as you can imagine.

  The Honorary Consul combines Catholicism and espionage in a way that both expands the author's ideas in both dimensions while proving familiar to anyone who has ever read any of his prior books.  It's a kind of technique you might be tempted to call "meta fictional" or post-modern, were those the kinds of things that were ever said about Graham Greene.

  Much of the pleasure in Graham Greene comes from the scenery- hear a remote Argentinian border town near the border of Paraguay, abutting the vast steppe-desert-forest of the Chaco.  The English community there is small to non existent, consisting of Charley Fortnum, the Honorary Consul of the title, a man who squeaks by on his mate plantation and the ability to import (and quickly resell) a luxury car every two years.  The narrator, Dr. Eduardo Plarr, is a half English/half Spanish immigrant from Buenos Aires.  The mechanics of the plot are set in motion when Fortnum, who often serves as a tour guide for visiting dignitaries, is kidnapped instead of the visiting American Ambassador.

  Plarr is called upon by the kidnappers, political rebels from Paraguay, to provide attention to Fortnum, and everything spirals mildly out of control from there.  It's the kind of plot the reader expects from Graham Greene, but not too familiar. 

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