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Graham Greene: The Honorary Consul

In this novel, we are, in some way, back to The Power and the Glory territory, not just because it is set in Latin America (primarily in northern Argentina, near the Paraguay border) but because it deals with the religious doubts of a priest or, in this case, a former priest who, as a good Greene Catholic hero, is not as former as he would like to think. Like The Power and the Glory, however, this one does not really work for me, both for the same reasons (namely, it becomes too much of a discussion on religion or, more particularly, faith, rather than a novel) and also because none of the characters is sympathetic, particularly the three Brits.

Eduardo Plarr is the town doctor. His father is British and his mother Paraguayan. His father left Eduardo and his mother when Eduardo was young and is now believed to be in a Paraguayan jail, while his mother lives a genteel life in Buenos Aires. Plarr is unmarried but either visits Señora Sánchez’ establishment (the local brothel) or has affairs with the wives of friends and colleagues. He is adamantly opposed to any long-term relationship. His friends include the other two Englishmen and Dr. Saavedra. Saavedra is a novelist, a rather dull one apparently, who, as a good Argentinean, is big on machismo in his books. The two Englishmen are a teacher, Dr. Humphries, who is not particularly important in the novel, and Charley Fortnum, the eponymous honorary consul. Fortnum, who is a lot older than Plarr, runs a maté farm but has snagged the unnecessary job of being honorary consul, which allows him to buy cars tax free (actually, it doesn’t, but the local officials have not worked out the difference between a normal consul and an honorary one). But, apart from that, Fortnum is a bit of a loser. He is divorced – his wife looked down on him – and, during the book, he marries Clara, one of the whores from Señora Sánchez’ establishment. Clara is that literary staple, the whore with a heart of gold. Though Fortnum’s wife, and fairly devoted to him, she remains a whore, having an affair with Plarr (and possibly others) and, when she gets pregnant, she reveals that Plarr is the father.

The key event of the novel involves Fortnum’s official role, accompanying the US ambassador on a tour. A group of what we would now call terrorists plan to kidnap the ambassador and use this as pressure to have Paraguay release ten political prisoner held in Paraguayan jails, including Plarr’s father. One of the kidnappers is León, a renegade priest (he is now married to Marta, who treats him more as a priest than a husband), who was at school with Plarr. When the ambassador seems to be unwell, Plarr is brought in and is able to reveal that the ambassador is unharmed but is also not the ambassador, as they have kidnapped the wrong man, taking Charley Fortnum by mistake. Plarr, while trying to remain detached, is dragged in, giving Greene an excuse to have long discussions between Plarr and León on religion and faith. Will the British government put pressure on the Paraguayans to release the prisoners in return for Fortnum’s life? Will the Argentineans find them and avoid bloodshed?

Overall, I felt that the novel drags. Plarr is too smug and self-satisfied with his life-style and beliefs and the only questions he raises are about his father and then only in passing. León, the renegade priest turned freedom fighter, is also unconvincing. Even the minor characters – León’s sidekick, the police chief, Plarr’s other lovers – remain stock characters and very unoriginal. The only one who works is Charley Fortnum, a man unsure of himself who thinks he might have found happiness with Clara but is, in reality, only in love with the whiskey bottle. When Greene keeps away from priests and whiskey, he is very good but when he does not, he can become somewhat tiresome.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Bodley Head