Being human

Having recently read The power and the glory, and not been as impressed as I was hoping to be, I turned to a much more recent Graham Greene, and one that I haven't read for some time - The human factor. Written in 1978, Human Factor is a bit of a mix of a Greene serious novel with, what he would have described as, an "entertainment" (i.e. one of his espionage / adventure novels).

The human factor happens to be a very good espionage novel, it exists in the grey world inhabited by George Smiley, not the glamorous universe of James Bond. I recently saw a documentary about Kim Philby; and it struck me that there are aspects of the Philby, Burgess and Maclean case that infuse the narrative. An interesting case of a writer taking life, but altering it subtly for his own purposes.

Maurice Castle is a small cog in MI6 on the verge of retirement. Unlike some of the more "flighty" members of his department Castle appears to be the very epitome of respectability and conservatism, but he has a secret. During his time in apartheid-era South Africa, Castle saved the life of the woman he loved and her child; but in doing so, he sold himself to Moscow, and this Faustian pact is about to unravel....

It's a very clever and moving novel. Castle's a traitor without a doubt, but it's hard not to feel sympathy for a character, whose loyalty is what will lead him to treachery. Alone of the spies, Castle, his unfortunate colleague Davis, who will be assassinated by his own department believing him to be a traitor, and Colonel Daintry (surely a close relative of John Le Carre's Jack Brotherhood) will be portrayed sympathetically, with all the others portrayed as over-the-top Grand Guignol figures.

It's perhaps this caricature effect that really works, as Castle's own life is seen as very normal by contrast, which serves to make his own treachery both more surprising and understandable. Greene plays cleverly with the reader's own perceptions. With a choice between Apartheid and Communism, what would you choose? What is treason? Where do loyalties begin and end? This goes to the heart of E.M. Forster's comment "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

This is a classic Cold War novel with very little in black and white (ironically considering the evil regime that has prompted Castle's downfall), but plenty in shades of grey. Greene may be near the end of his life, but his writing here is still at its best.


betsy said…
I think "The Quiet American", The Power and The Glory", and "Our Man in Havana", are his best novels. Oh yes, and "The End of the Affair". I have not read "The Human Factor".
Book-hound said…
I love "Our Man in Havana" too, Betsy, and have a soft spot for my very first Greene "The heart of the matter".

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