Friday, 31 October 2008

A Debt of Gratitude

Even though Graham Greene lived and worked well into the ending of the 20th century, I was a little surprised when I saw the date of publication of ‘The Human Factor’: 1978, the year I graduated from university: For some reason I had associated it with the 1950s and an earlier generation.

As I’ve mentioned before, Greene had had an early influence on me - but reading Greene from this end of my allotted time is a very different experience. The realisation that he is dealing in my lifetime gives a sharpness, if not bitterness, and reflecting on Greene’s observations is a more personal undertaking than initially presumed. Time present is to be found in time past.

This is a spy story – in the way that King Lear is a story about retirement or Waiting for Godot a play about a missed appointment. The title is appropriate – if 007 is all action, and Smiley not really much deeper than your average detective, Castle, the central character here, and Davis, his co-worker in the Security Service are not only fleshed out and rounded physically, but psychologically believable. The guilts and gratitudes, the anxieties and loves Mr Greene weaves into their tale are not mere excuses for action, they are the subject of the story – The Human Factor.

Through a debt of honour Castle feels bound to reveal what amount to trivial secrets to the ideological enemies of his nation – enemies who acted with more humanity and goodwill than supposed allies and friends. No guilt arises from the treachery, if anything it is a re-affirmation of the love he feels for his wife (the root cause of the debt) and a genuine attempt to relieve the suffering of her ‘people’ under the vicious Apartheid system both the British and American governments are working with covertly (and not so covertly) in an attempt to stop the threat of Africa turning ‘red’.

What we get is the clash of an individual with systems – the resulting crushing of the human by the state and its apparatus is quite desolating. The world has turned upside down – the doctor seeks ways to kill, the policeman attempts to justify and excuse crime; the Catholic church is anything but catholic and even the guard dog fawns on strangers.

Accidents happen in this ‘we’re not totalitarian’ state – the wrong man is executed (how else can we prevent bad publicity) – much as in the ‘regrettable’ accident of the killing of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.

Fictional though Mr Greene’s world is, it is a fiction based on a mental reality – that of a security service more frightened of the enemy within than a real threat without: I can only compare it to the human immune system turning against the cells of its own body.

Relevant to all of us in the present climate of ‘wars’ against terror which produce far more shocking tortures and crimes against humanity on behalf of the good guys than the bad guys could dream up (or afford).

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