The Honorary Consul [Graham Greene]

Nicholas Shakespeare recalls, in his introduction, a conversation he had with Graham Greene where Greene said that the Heart of the Matter was his best book (although he hated the hero), and that The Honorary Consul was his favourite.
Shakespeare also reveals that the Honorary Consul was his first Greene novel, and it is also mine.

I fell into it from the opening lines and emerged just over a week later.  Thanks to a bout of man-flu I had a couple of days in bed where I savoured Greene’s brilliant story telling as Doctor Eduardo Plarr tries to save the honorary Consul Charley Fortnum from being killed after he was mistakenly kidnapped in place of the Ambassador.

I wish we had a simpler flag than the Union Jack.  I hung it upside down once on the Queens birthday.  I could see nothing wrong with the bloody thing, but Humphries was angry – he said he was going to write to the Ambassador

Both Plarr and Fortnum are intriguing characters. Plarr’s father hangs over him throughout the novel while his mum sits in Buenos Aires eating cakes, while Fortnums love of ‘just the right measure’ and his role as honorary consul cause embarrassment to everyone but himself.  But Plarr becomes much darker as the novel winds it’s way to the end, his secret becomes more and more open to everyone as the novel goes on, while Fortnum slowly crawls his way out of his life of intoxication as he contemplates not living to see his child grow.

From the bungling kidnappers to the General who will not interrupt his fishing trip to deal with the demands, the weight of machismo on the Latin American character is poked at by Greene, sometimes with humour and sometimes with frustration.

‘Or machismo,’ the doctor said, venturing to tease him.
Oh, everything here is machismo,’ Perez said … ‘Here machismo is only another word for living.  A word for the air that we breathe.  When there is no machismo a man is dead’

The unnamed town is largely thought to be based on Corrientes, and Greene explores the life of it’s inhabitants and the seemingly muted life of the expat in a far flung border town, where  an engaging story line is played out by extremely real characters who all seem to want to do better, but who all mostly fail to achieve their aim.

He wondered what kind of bitter and reproachful prayers she had muttered that morning at Father Galvao’s mass.  Father Galvao was a Portuguese Jesuit who for some reason had been transferred from Rio de Janeiro.  He was very popular with women – perhaps they were more ready to confide in him because he had come from a long way off.


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