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Graham Greene: The Confidential Agent

Another story about a foreigner adrift in a strange land though, this time, the strange land is England and the foreigner is from an unspecified country. The foreigner is merely called D. He is from a country where there is a civil war (end of the 1930s) and represents the official government, supported by the workers, fighting against the upper-class rebels. All signs, therefore, point to Spain but Greene never says so.

D. is coming to England (travelling third class, though he sees his rival from the other side (known merely as L.) travelling first-class) to purchase coal for his government. The other side controls the mining area (Asturias, the Spanish mining area, was under Franco’s control) and his side desperately needs coal, though it is never specified what for. His troubles start almost immediately. At passport control, the immigration officer insists that, while the passport is genuine, the photo is not of him. A lot has happened to him in the two years since it was taken. He has been in prison, been buried in a collapsed building for fifty-six hours and his wife was shot”by mistake”. The immigration officer finally lets him through but it causes him to miss the London train. While waiting for the train, he meets a young woman who befriends him. She is Rose Cullen and is the daughter of Lord Benditch, from whom D. is to buy the coal, though father and daughter are more or less estranged. She decides to hire a car and offers him a lift to London. On the way they stop at a restaurant, where a chauffeur goes through his pockets (the chauffeur turns out to be L.’s chauffeur) and he has run-in with the restaurant manager, Captain Currie, a man who seems to manage every catering establishment he visits and who will cause him problems throughout the book. When Rose decides to stay in the restaurant, he decides to take the car, leaving her a note that he will leave it at her father’s. However, the chauffeur, L. and Currie chase after him, beat him up and leave him to walk.

It gets worse and worse. The people who are nominally on his side are almost certainly not and may have been bought off by L. He is inadvertently responsible for two deaths and blamed for both. He is arrested and charged with a series of crimes. He is shot at, beaten up, has his papers stolen, sees the coal contract awarded to his enemy and finds himself generally opposed by virtually everyone he meets in England with the sterling exception of the faithful Rose Cullen and her friend and possible fiancé, Fortescue. Somehow, he doesn’t give up but keeps on fighting, not sure who his enemies are, except they are probably everyone. It is not that he is a devoted patriot. He is quick to condemn the corrupt ministers of his own side. Rather he feels sympathy for the poor people of his country, who have suffered so much. He has seen this suffering, though he himself comes from a relatively well-to-do background (he is a professor of medieval French literature). He just wants to relieve their suffering, which is why he despises L., a literary dilettante. Somehow, he doesn’t win but he certainly doesn’t lose and it is clear that Greene has a great deal of sympathy for his dogged determination.

Publishing history

First published 1939 by Heinemann