Tuesday, February 7, 2012

473. Honorary Consul – Graham Greene

History: This is a British thriller novel, published in 1973. 
  Plot: The story is set in Corrientes, a city in northern Argentina, near the border with Paraguay which can be assumed from the police cars that reads ¨Policía de Corrientes¨. 
Eduardo Plarr is a young doctor of English descent. As a boy, he left Paraguay with his mother, escaping to Buenos Aires while his English father remained in Paraguay as a political rebel. Aside from a single hand-delivered letter, they never hear from the father again. 
When Plarr moves to the quiet, subtropical backwater town, he strikes up acquaintance with the only two English inhabitants, a bitter old English teacher, Humphries, and the Honorary Consul of the title, Charles Fortnum, a divorced, self-pitying alcoholic who misuses his position. Plarr's other main acquaintance is Julio Saavedra, a forgotten but self-important Argentine writer of novels full of silent machismo. 
Visiting the local brothel with Saavedra, Plarr is attracted to a girl, but she is taken by another man. A couple of years later, he is called to treat Fortnum's new wife. Plarr sees that she's the same girl from the brothel, Clara. Plarr regards himself as a cool, self-controlled Englishman (although he has never been to England), he finds himself becoming obsessed by Clara. He later seduces her by buying her some sunglasses and they begin an affair, although he tries to remain emotionally distant from her. 
"Caring is the only dangerous thing," Plarr says in the novel. "`Love' was a claim which he wouldn't meet, a responsibility he would refuse to accept, a demand. So many times his mother had used the word when he was a child; it was like the threat of an armed robber. `Put up your hands or else ...' Something was always asked in return: obedience, an apology, a kiss which one had no desire to give." 
Clara becomes pregnant, and Fortnum believes the child is his and starts drinking less. 
Then some of Plarr's friends from school turn up at his surgery, one of them is a failed priest named Rivas. They have news of Plarr's father; he is alive in a jail in Paraguay. They have a plot, for which they need a doctor's assistance, to kidnap the US ambassador on his trip to Corrientes. They will demand the release of political prisoners in Paraguay, including Plarr's father, in return for the ambassador. 
But the band kidnaps the wrong man; Charley Fortnum, the Honorary Consul, whom they take to a squalid hut in a shanty town. 
The rest of the novel charts Plarr's efforts to get Fortnum released, either as a result of diplomatic action from the UK, whose ambassador in BA is a comedy figure, or as a result of his schoolfriends giving up. But no-one listens to him. Saavedra and Humphries fail to help Plarr in his efforts. The police suspect that Plarr is involved in the kidnapping, as they know about his affair with Clara, and his behaviour has been suspicious. And they tell him his father was shot dead in Paraguay while attempting escape. 
Plarr goes to the hut, where Fortnum has been shot in the leg while attempting escape. Fortnum spends much of his time as he faces up to his death in sentimentalizing about Clara and in remembering the fearsome figure of his father. Then he discovers that Plarr is having an affair with Clara, and that the child is Plarr's. Meanwhile, members of the motley band drift away, and the police close in and surround the hut, while the failed priest, Father Rivas, conducts a makeshift mass inside with the rain coming down and police waiting. The police deadline is about to expire. 
Plarr goes out to talk to the police, but he is killed by the paratroopers, along with the other kidnappers. The authorities blame Plarr's death on the kidnappers. Plarr's mother, once a beauty and now bloated, and some of his previous older mistresses attend his funeral. Saavedra reads a homily. The UK embassy then relieves Fortnum of his consulship. In the last scene, Fortnum and Clara attempt a reconciliation. Fortnum will name the child Eduardo. 
Review: This book is set in the northern Argentine town of Corrientes, on the border with Paraguay, and tells the story of Paraguayan revolutionaries conducting a botched kidnapping, intending to get the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina but ending up with the Honorary British Consul. 
For a Cold War novel it is noteworthy that Greene paints all the characters sympathetically. We are not inclined to dislike the police colonel, the former priest-turned-revolutionary, the alcoholic honorary consul, his prostitute wife, or the strikingly amoral Doctor Plarr, around whom the plot revolves. Further, they are all sympathetic to each other, as neither fear nor loathing is apparent. Greene is more interested in the relationships between the characters than the political context itself. 
It has a tight plot, which constantly left me wondering how it might end (i.e. we know some combination of people will likely die, but who?).Throughout, most of the characters reflect on the circumstances that brought them there, which increases the tension. Despite the political nature of the novel, it focuses quite a lot on love and commitment—not only in terms of personal relationships but also political causes--as important themes. 
Opening Line: “Doctor Eduardo Plarr stood in the small port on the Parana, among the rails and yellow cranes, watching where a horizontal plume of smoke stretched over the Chaco.” 
Closing Line: “He realized that never before had she been so close to him as she was now.” 
Quotes: “Simplicity belonged by right to those who were native-born, those who could take the conditions of life, however bizarre, for granted.” 
Rating: Good.

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