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It was an evening which, by some mysterious combination of failing light and the smell of an unrecognized plant, brings back to some men the sense of childhood and of future hope and to others the sense of something which has been lost and nearly forgotten." These lines, early on in Graham Greene's new novel, will establish What will be later confirmed -- that the book is the best he has written in 25 years since The Heart of the Matter. It is set in one of those dusty backwaters which is such a fine terrain for his talent -- an Argentinian province where marginal survivors en route to becoming burnt-out cases live with their failed expectations, with betrayal of one kind or another, with default -- all those constants of the Greene novel. And somewhere between machismo -- a reiterated word and concept here extended to mean life -- and death, the possibilities of God and love may exist even where the interlining of comforts they provide is thin. Greene here, via one of his lapsed priests, is more articulate on the subject of God in our day and doubting age than he has been in years: "The God I believe in must be responsible for all the evil as well as for all the saints. He has to be a God made in our image with a night-side as well as a day-side... God is suffering the same evolution that we are, but perhaps with more pain." Along with God, absurdity is everpresent (not the antics of The Comedians or Travels with My Aunt), initially manifest when one of the three Englishmen on the scene, Fortnum, the Honorable Consul, is kidnapped by mistake. His steadily tippling existence, ("always two drinks under par"), as empty as his bogus title, has now achieved some meaning -- he has married a young girl out of a brothel and is about to become a father. He has found someone to love. The second pillar of the community is a Doctor of Letters who eats a great deal as if to fill some unappeasable void. And the third is a Doctor Plarr who ministers to the poor, to Fortnum's wife, and who is involved with the revolutionaries through an old friend and has hope of retrieving his long-disappeared father. He is now the intercessor as Fortnum lies in their hands -- waiting to be shot, or released? Greene's novel is intensely involving in the conflicts which take place on more than one level, worldly and humane at the same time, and -- as might be expected -- unerring in its vistas of crumbling stucco and mud barrios to perhaps only a room with a view opening on a "dusty palm and a dead fountain." When Greene writes as splendidly as he does here, we are reminded that he has no equivalent.
Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1973
ISBN: 0143105558
Page count: 308pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1973


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