The Honorary Consul

Graham Greene

1973

(Argentinian revolutionaries abduct the wrong political figure by mistake, and one cynical acquaintance is the only one who cares... perhaps not even he does.)

 Film and TelevisionStill from the 1983 John Mackenzie film The Honorary Consul (later changed inscrutably to Beyond the Limit); Bob Hoskins plays the Argentinian Colonel Perez, who is suspicious of Eduardo Plarr (played by Richard Gere) of being too close to the revolutionaries. This image featured on Metro UK when Bob Hoskins died in 2014.

 

Graham Greene, though a writer of great variety, is known for his “seedy” settings (he popularized the adjective, much to his regret) and the moral dimension of his very human characters. In these respects The Honorary Consul is an enduring and typical example of Greene’s style. Early in the book the protagonist Eduardo Plarr criticizes the romantic novelist Saavedra by saying that “life isn’t like” the way that author writes. Here Greene crafts a novel according to the alternative strategy; to show what life is like, with real people encountering real difficulties. The characters’ frail humanity and the ambivalence of their commitments will encourage us imperfect readers to relate honestly to them. The author refuses to vault skyward into heroism, idealism, wonder, or joy, perhaps as these are short-lived and usually confused in the real world. The good guys are bad enough to prevent us from admiring them, and the bad guys are good enough to prevent us from demonizing them. No character has an entirely appetizing mixture of traits, but no character is thoroughly distasteful either.

Like many readers, my gut draws me towards works whose moral distinctions rise into sharper relief—I enjoy esteeming my protagonists. If we insist on this criterion, Greene will not fare well. After meeting the main characters and following them around for a while, we might question whether they are likable enough company. Such readers must take a step of faith throughout the first 100 pages or so, that Greene is telling us a story that we will really care to read. Embarking on the book was for me like hearing the first few sentences of a party yarn that we fear might not be worth the patience. However, may no reader give up before realizing Greene’s purpose! The first impression fades and becomes irrelevant as one reads onward. The grayscale characterization is not due to neglect or apathy on the part of the author. Far from it—the ambiguity represents a strategy conceived for a distinct moral purpose, as paradoxical as this seems. A novel need not be moralizing to be morally interesting.

First, a brief synopsis: Argentinian revolutionaries, led by the charismatic ex-priest León Rivas, have abducted an official for the purpose of extortion; but as it turns out, their prisoner is a merely honorary British consul on whose behalf nobody is coming forth to receive demands or offer ransom. He is Charley Fortnum, whose only friends in the world are his bottle and a certain Dr. Eduardo Plarr. Dr. Plarr has had some friendly dealings with the revolutionaries in the past, and so he (rather indifferently) begins to look into ways to help his buddy. When Rivas and the other revolutionaries come into the story, and when the policeman Colonel Perez starts to threaten Plarr for his connections with them, things get complicated. And by the way, as poor Charley has been… tied up, Plarr is having an affair with his wife.

As the chapters pass, Greene’s piebald approach to characterization frees him to cultivate two impressions or responses in the reader. The first is a thoughtfulness, which is achieved especially by the dialogue of the characters. Through their open wrestling with issues, we see them as thinkers no matter who they are, and we can hardly help appreciating them for it, and also thinking ourselves. Among the recurring topics are justice; conventions of society; God (whether he exists, how he would work in the world (e.g., IV.1), whether prayer works (V.2), and how he can be consistent with so much evil in the world); the nature and role of Catholicism; and the Hispanic (though arguably universally recognizable) concept of machismo (masculine pride). These are tools the author wields, not, apparently, to produce opinions in us, but rather to put us in a thoughtful frame of mind. The second operation Greene conducts on us he accomplishes through the struggle and growth of characters in the novel. Despite their dark circumstances and sordid behavior, the characters somehow lure us into an optimism regarding the possibility for human change and improvement. The reader (if willing to submit to this operation) senses that despite the chaos and ambiguity that permeate the world, wretched human characters are gradually learning lessons (e.g., León Rivas about violence, Plarr about love), and becoming better people. In both of these objects of the author’s cultivation—the thoughtfulness and the optimism—one sees a subtler type of moralistic novel. It is not in the medieval tradition of sermons dressed up or allegorically veiled in thin plots (as valuable as those can be), nor the modern novel blatantly railing against injustice and corruption (as much as we benefit from these too), but rather an unpreaching presentation of a range of equally fallible souls wrangling tangled issues. His characters make dreadful mistakes, and perhaps never come fully into the light, but we see at least some of them making valuable headway by the time the novel closes. Perhaps we readers better understand the issues involved by this time as well, even though the author has refused to hand anything to us directly. He gives us only maps and signage, such that we somehow remain under authorial direction while nevertheless discovering the insights for ourselves.

But what subtle and circuitous mechanisms the novelist must use to keep us in a state of curiosity and trust! A drunk is an unlikely hero, but Charley Fortnum, the dissipated “honorary consul” himself, is the most virtuous man in the novel. He has courage in the face of death, a true and unconditional love for his wife Clara, and forgiveness for the adulterer Plarr, all of which seem to counterbalance his vices in a way that leaves us ashamed of our initial disdain for this man. We (and what is more to the point, twentieth-century British readers) might also be tempted to dismiss the revolutionaries as simplistic, impulsive, and thoughtlessly violent bandits. But Aquino’s poetry and León Rivas’s clerical side, as incongruous as they seem, are hints of deeper substance in each of them. León embraces his potential in the end, but Aquino does not, as machismo hinders his development. Plarr himself, the epitome of harsh cynicism and anomie, eventually begins to change, due ironically to Clara. As Fortnum says in the end in a remarkably selfless statement: Plarr, as bad as he is with his lies, deceit, adultery, etc., is beginning to learn about love.

The fact that no one cares about Fortnum (with the exception of Plarr), displays the corruption of not only the revolutionaries, but also, and more strikingly, those whom Greene’s typical reader would presume to be the “good guys”—Plarr’s friends and governmental officials. In addition to challenging our preconceptions, this depressing situation also fits into Greene’s overall picture of the Argentinian city of Corrientes as a dreary, scary, barbaric place to live (e.g., I.1). Greene’s study of machismo and his satire on it via the clownish cliché-mongering writer Saavedra indicts Latin America more broadly, but perhaps does not reveal a serious attempt to understand the “culture of honor”. On the other hand, at times I saw Saavedra as a Shakespearian “wise fool”, as I tended to agree with some of his flamboyant comments, though perhaps Greene did not. Regardless, the satire on machismo plays its (relatively minor) role in the novel consistently and effectively. In the end, the Argentinian context is perhaps best seen as a suitable arena to exhibit certain aspects of the human condition, rather than a parochial statement about culture or ethnicity.

Regarding Greene’s cultivation of thoughtfulness again, the event of the story in which this is most salient is the discussion between Plarr and the revolutionary León concerning the perennial theological “problem of evil” (V.3). No solution is offered that can hold water, but the South American sociopolitical milieu proves an excellent one for highlighting what is at stake. The issues cannot be dismissed as abstruse or abstract, as they impact major decisions of the characters. Interested readers can further appreciate the relevance of the Latin American context for the problem of reconciling God with social ills, since proposed solutions in real life have translated in that region into such movements as liberation theology and the social gospel (see also III.3).

Those who read John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut will be accustomed to moral confusion, to ideals that are barely recognizable through so much dilution and corruption. One gets the hazy idea that there is something out there to be admired, but we are never sure exactly what it is. Graham Greene and his contemporary Evelyn Waugh produce a different sort of modern novel. From their pens we have the same haze and perplexity, but a stronger tug on the moral fishing-line, yanking us from time to time onto a road that we are to suppose leads out of the morass… if only we had a guide. But they will not provide one—that would be too brazen, too crude, too heavy-handed especially in a twentieth century context. Stark realism in the modern novel has perhaps destroyed the traditional hero, but these writers have found a workaround. Exemplified by The Honorary Consul, one of Greene’s favorites among his 26 or so novels, the author wants us to admire something, but what he is pointing at is not any of the characters themselves. The hero of the story is an idea. We are directed towards an abstract notion of the human potential for inner development, however agonizingly slow its realization, however numerous the obstacles and detours, however unattainable its perfection, and however mysterious the road itself and the reason to travel it.

 
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SUMMARY:

Part I:  Dr. Eduardo Plarr is the son of an Englishman and a Spanish woman, though is thoroughly an Englishman in personality. The setting is Argentina during a time of political unrest in the third quarter of the twentieth century. León Rivas is a priest-turned-revolutionary, whom Plarr has secretly helped in the past, in exchange for aid for Plarr’s father who is in hiding. Rivas’ people, in an event unrelated to his connection with Plarr, bungle the intended kidnapping of the American Ambassador. They happen instead to capture the drunken (and useless as far as political leverage is concerned) “Honorary Consul” of the United Kingdom, Charley Fortnum.

Part II:  Some history is provided of Plarr and Fortnum. Plarr meets Clara, the ex-prostitute wife of the kidnapped Fortnum. They begin an affair. We come to know Jorge Julio Saavedra, a melodramatic Argentinian novelist who champions the concept of machismo.

Part III:  Colonel Perez interviews Dr. Plarr about the Fortnum kidnapping, and becomes suspicious of Plarr’s involvement with the revolutionaries. With Clara, Dr. Plarr the cynic begins to discover a spark of what might be love. Fortnum, meanwhile, chats with his captors and even befriends the apostate priest León and the poet Aquino, although he is honest about his slight prospects for survival.

Part IV:  We learn the truth about Plarr’s father’s fate, and find that Plarr cares about Fortnum. However, Plarr is unable to stir the British Ambassador to action on behalf of the kidnapped man. Plarr’s friends Doctor Humphries and the novelist Saavedra refuse to help, out of pride. Eventually, however, it is pride itself that prompts Saavedra to help.

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TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

 

The Spanish language was Roman by origin, and the Romans were a simple people. Machismo-- the sense of masculine pride-- was the Spanish equivalent of virtus. It had little to do with English courage or a stiff upper lip.

-I.1.

 

“Why do you always want the truth?"

“Contrary to common belief the truth is nearly always funny. It’s only tragedy which people bother to imagine or invent. If you really knew what went into this goulash you’d laugh."

-Doctor Humphries and Doctor Plarr, I.1.

 

“She was an intellectual, if you understand what I mean. She didn’t understand human nature."

-Charley Fortnum, II.1.

 

“A poet-- the true novelist must always be in his way a poet-- a poet deals in absolutes. Shakespeare avoided the politics of his time, the minutiae of politics. He wasn’t concerned with Philip of Spain, with pirates like Drake. He used the history of the past to express what I call the abstraction of politics. A novelist today who wants to represent tyranny should not describe the activities of General Stroessner in Paraguay-- that is journalism not literature. Tiberius is a better example for a poet."

-Jorge Julio Saavedra, II.2.

 

Death to Doctor Plarr, who was still in his early thirties, appeared in the guise of a fortuitous accident on the road or an unforeseen cancer, but in the mind of an old man it was the inevitable end of a long and incurable sickness.

-II.3.

 

“You know what these Spanish Catholics are like. Superstition, of course. Like walking under a ladder. Clara doesn’t know who Shakespeare is, but she’s heard all about the Pope’s what-do-you-call-it."

-Charley Fortnum, II.3.

 

"…But it was real love, not brothel love I wanted. I don’t suppose you can understand that either."

"I’m not quite sure what the word love means. My mother loves dulce de leche. So she tells me."

"Has no woman ever loved you, Ted?" Fortnum inquired. A kind of paternal anxiety in his voice irritated Doctor Plarr.

"Two or three have told me so, but they had no difficulty in finding someone else after I said good-bye. Only my mother’s love of sweet cakes isn’t likely to change. She will love them in sickness and in health till death do them part. Perhaps that’s the real true love."

-Charley Fortnum and Doctor Plarr, II.3.

 

One lie in the presence of a policeman seemed to multiply like bacilli.

-III.1.

 

"Oh, everything here is machismo," Perez said, and he smiled at the doctor’s remark in so friendly a way that Plarr felt a little reassured. "Here machismo is only another word for living. A word for the air we breathe. When there is no machismo a man is dead."

-Colonel Perez, III.1.

 

Secrecy, he thought, is part of the attraction in a sexual affair. An open affair has always a touch of absurdity.

-III.1.

 

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains? One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself-- everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger.

-III.1.

 

…unlike Sodom the Church did sometimes produce one just man, so perhaps she would not be destroyed like Sodom.

-III.3.

 

People have the same awed respect for death as they have for a distinguished stranger, however unwelcome he may be, who visits their town.

-III.3.

 

“I hate things which are slow. I would rather be a mouse than a tortoise, even though the tortoise lives a longer time." He had become voluble after his second gulp of whisky. "I admire the eagle which drops on its victims like a rock out of the sky, but not the vulture which flaps slowly down, looking as it goes to see if the carrion moves. That is why I took to poetry. Prose moves too slowly, poetry drops like an eagle and stabs before you know."

-Aquino, III.3.

 

Whatever the crime, the same meal’s served to all.

-Aquino, on death, III.3.

 

“You seem to have written the hell of a lot about death."

“Yes. I think about half my poems are about death," Aquino said. "It is one of the two proper subjects of a man-- love and death."

-Charley Fortnum and Aquino, III.3.

 

"Every man has his own proper measure. I’d never criticize anyone for not sharing mine. A measure’s sort of built into a man’s system, like a lift in a block of flats."

-Charley Fortnum, on alcohol, III.3.

 

She had heavy pouches below her eyes, but they were not, Doctor Plarr knew, the pouches of grief, but of constipation. He had an impression that if they were squeezed they were squirt cream like an éclair. It is terrible what time can do to a beautiful woman. A man’s looks often improve with age, seldom a woman’s. He thought: a man should never love a woman less than twenty years younger than himself. In that way he can die before the vision fades.

-of Doctor Plarr’s mother, IV.1.

 

If for once he had been aware of a sickness he could describe in no other terms, he would have unhesitatingly used the phrase "I love", but he had always been able to attribute the emotion he felt to a quite different malady-- to loneliness, pride, physical desire, or even a simple sense of curiosity.

-IV.1.

 

"The sexual instinct and the creative instinct live and die together."

-Jorge Julio Saavedra, IV.2.

 

"If you could look deep enough into anyone’s character, even perhaps your own, you would find the sense of machismo."

-Jorge Julio Saavedra, IV.2.

 

"Love" was a claim which he wouldn’t meet, a responsibility he would refuse to accept, a demand… So many times his mother had used the word when he was a child; it was like the threat of an armed robber, "Put up your hands or else…" Something was always asked in return: obedience, an apology, a kiss which one had no desire to give.

-Doctor Plarr, IV.2.

 

"I am not a Christian any longer, León. I don’t think in those terms. I have no conscience. I am a simple man."

"I have never met a simple man. Not even in the confessional though I used to sit there for hours on end. Man was not created simple. When I was a young priest, I used to try to unravel what motives a man or woman had, what temptations and self-delusions. But I soon learned to give all that up, because there was never a straight answer. No one was simple enough for me to understand. In the end I would just say, 'Three Our Fathers, Three Hail Marys. Go in peace.'"

-Doctor Plarr and Father Rivas, V.1.

 

"An Indian falls asleep, at any moment, whenever he is not required. The only sound which can wake him is hearing his name-- or a noise that may be dangerous. Look at him, lying quietly there while we talk. I envy him. That is real peace. Sleep is meant to be like that for all of us, but we have lost the animal touch."

-Father Rivas, V.1.

 

"Render unto Caesar, but when our Caesar uses napalm and fragmentation bombs… The Church lives in time too. Only sometimes, for a short while, for some people-- I am not one of them-- I am not a man of vision-- I think perhaps-- but how can I explain to you when I believe so little myself?-- I think sometimes the memory of that man, that carpenter, can lift a few people out of the temporary Church of these terrible years, when the Archbishop sits down to dinner with the General, into the great Church beyond our time and place, and then… those lucky ones… they have no words to describe the beauty of that Church."

-Father Rivas, V.3.

 

"I have seen a child born without hands and feet. I would have killed it if I had been left alone with it, but the parents watched me too closely-- they wanted to keep that bloody broken torso alive. The Jesuits used to tell us it was our duty to love God. A duty to love a God who produces that abortion? It’s like the duty of a German to love Hitler. Isn’t it better not to believe in that horror up there sitting in the clouds of heaven than pretend to love him?"

"It may be better not to breathe, but all the same I cannot help breathing. Some men, I think, are condemned to belief by a judge just as they are condemned to prison. They have no choice. No escape. They have been put behind the bars for life."

-Doctor Plarr and Father Rivas, V.3.

 

"Free Will was the excuse for everything. It was God’s alibi."

-Father Rivas, V.3.

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READ THIS WHEN...

…you are not in the mood for heroes and villains painted in easy black and white, but for a steady dose of realism, moral struggle and growth;

or,

...you want a modern adventure story amid political instability and corruption, set in mid-twentieth century Argentina.

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D ALSO LIKE:

(for the delver into moral and religious struggles cast in story form:)

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850).
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866).
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945).
  • John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952).

(for the Greenean traveler, thinker, and adventurer:)

  • Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1938).
  • Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940).
  • Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (1948).
  • Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958).
 
 
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Hardcover:

No hardcover is in print (what?!), but there are still a number of used and new ones on Amazon, e.g.:

 

Paperback:

The Penguin edition is always reliable:

 
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