Sunday, 20 October 2019

To do evil that good might come

The Confidential Agent A ferry makes a foggy approach to the Port of Dover in the atmospheric opening of The Confidential Agent. Graham Greene's descriptions are no less brilliant when the action moves to London and to a mining village. Unfortunately I didn't much care for the characters.

D., the eponymous protagonist, has come to England on a mission to buy coal. An ex-academic, he has been widowed by the civil war that continues to be waged in his country. He is also something of a pacifist with principles, as he says, "You've got to choose some line of action and live by it. Otherwise nothing matters at all." Unfortunately the rebels and their representative agent L. are also after the coal. Greene used capital letters for his characters in order to avoid giving them a specific nationality, nonetheless, with the hindsight of 70 years, it's hard not to imagine that they are Spanish.

The book is one of Greene's "entertainments" and it touches on the theme of the immorality that war imposes on people: "you couldn't count strangers' lives in the balance against your own people's. When war started the absolute moral code was abolished: you were allowed to do evil that good might come." This theme was very prescient at the time of publication, considering that within six years London experienced the Blitz and Germany the bombing of Dresden.

Half way through the book the pace picks up, when The Hunted of Part 1 becomes The Hunter of Part 2, but it's probably my least favourite Graham Greene so far. He wrote it in six weeks in 1939 and the narrative sometimes feels agitated, occasionally almost manic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he was fuelled by Benzedrine at the time.

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