The only questions of importance were those which a man asked himself.
Another book that I have just finished is The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene.
The novel is set in Argentina. Oddly enough, in the obscure, northern town of Corrientes on the border with Paraguay. It’s the tragicomic story of a bungled kidnapping by a group of would-be revolutionaries who intended to kidnap the American ambassador as he toured the nearby Jesuit ruins but instead ended up with a drunken British honorary consul who owns a small yerba farm. The group holds the honorary consul hostage, having to supply him with endless amounts of whisky while they wait for their demands to be met by Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner who can’t be bothered while on a fishing vacation in Patagonia. Meanwhile, the British diplomatic corps in Buenos Aires is puzzled why no one in Argentina understands that the captive is only an “honorary” consul and not a real diplomat, the “honorable consul”.
The story is told mostly from the perspective of Eduardo Plarr, a doctor in the small town who is the son of an English-Argentine marriage. The doctor’s mother spends her days in Buenos Aires shopping at Harrod’s and eating sweets at the Richmond.
Graham Greene is one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. The Honorary Consul is almost a textbook example of narrative pacing and plot. Greene converted to Catholicism in his twenties and, like most of his novels, a priest makes an appearance towards the end of The Honorary Consul. The story comes to a grinding halt for a few pages while the defrocked priest discusses morality and theology of the story with the characters. Regardless, it’s still an excellent read, especially for anyone with even a passing familiarity with South America. Written when Greene was 69, he called The Honorary Consul “perhaps the novel that I prefer to all the others.”
Graham Greene obviously had visited Argentina and dedicated The Honorary Consul to his friend Victoria Ocampo: “For Victoria Ocampo with love, and in memory of the many happy weeks I have passed at San Isidro and Mar del Plata.”
In the novel a pair of women’s sunglasses,worn by the honorary consul’s young wife, a former prostitute, figure prominently. Greene’s description of the sunglasses as well as the sunglasses pictured on the cover of the Vintage Classics edition remind me of the ubiquitous sunglasses that Victoria Ocampo wore in her later life, when Greene would have known her. I would like to think that Greene included the sunglasses in his novel as a small tribute to Ocampo.
The Vintage Classics edition, which is one of a series of Greene’s novels republished in 2004 on the centenary of his birth, includes an introductory essay by Nicholas Shakespeare who tells us that
It’s tempting to see in Charley Fortnum [the honorary consul] the projection of the frayed, seedy official that Greene might have become, sitting beneath a cracked portrait of the Queen while outside the Union Jack flutters upside down. Nobody wants “poor Charley” either. An old man and a drunk, he’s worthless in London, Buenos Aires and Corrientes. “All he has done for our relations with Argentina is to marry a local whore.”
Nicholas Shakespeare lived in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s when his father was actually the British Consul. Nicholas Shakespeare is the author of the splendid novel The Dancer Upstairs and a massive biography of Bruce Chatwin (who wrote the 1977 travel classic In Patagonia).