GETTING TO KNOW THE GENERAL
The Story Of An Involvement
The general is Omar Torrijos, leader of Panama from 1968, when he took over in a coup, until his death in a plane crash in 1981. Enmeshed in the difficult negotiations with the US that finally resulted in the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, Torrijos summoned Greene to Panama in 1976 so that the British novelist could get to know the country and its leader, and help put across the Panamanian viewpoint to others. Greene, long a sympathizer of left-wing causes, set out in part to realize his own, buccaneer fantasies of Central America--but came, as he says, to love Torrijos as a friend. He made other friends, the foremost being his guide, bodyguard, and companion, a former Marxist professor of mathematics who went by the name of Chuchu; and it looks for a while as if this will be more a book about Chuchu's sexual exploits, about rum punches and bad meals, than about General Torrijos. (A subtheme is Greene's European habit of drinking all the time, versus the Panamanian habit of drinking on Sunday; Greene seems to convert just about everyone to the European mode.) But what emerges, subtly, is a portrait of Torrijos as much drawn from the mirror of his Panama as from Greene's encounters and travels with him. Torrijos dreamed of an independent, social democratic Central America; his Panama was home to political refugees from Chile and Argentina, and to guerrillas from E1 Salvador and Nicaragua (Chuchu is constantly engaged in small-scale gun running and semi-clandestine meetings). Greene became friendly with many of these people and they take on a very human form here. (In travels on behalf of Torrijos, Greene met Nicaraguan Sandinista leaders Daniel Ortega and Thomas Borge, and E1 Salvadoran Communist leader Salvador Cayetano, who later committed suicide. He also met, in Panama, Eden Pastora, the former and now anti-Sandinista commander, whom Greene calls a tragic figure and considers a sell-out to his celebrity status.) Greene revels in the constantly shifting travel plans, in Torrijos' way with a crowd, in the antiseptic lawns and golf courses of the Canal Zone. He went back to Panama each year, thereafter; in 1977, along with fellow-novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he was a member of the Panamanian delegation to the signing of the treaty. (There, Greene depicts Chilean dictator Pinochet as dominating the room like Boris Karloff--and making it all the more difficult for Americans to distinguish one Latin general from another.) His appreciation of Torrijos, who chose the difficult path of patience over the easier one of romantic violence, is heartfelt and touching without being either soppy or mythmaking. Greene's skill at presenting people he likes, foibles and all, is put to good use here. An engaging combination of memoir, travel writing, and social and political analysis from a man who doesn't worry about being used.