His autobiographical Ways of Escape (1980), Graham Greene snappishly remarks, "Some critics have referred to a strange violent 'seedy' region of the mind (why did I ever popularize that last adjective?) which they call Greeneland, and I have sometimes wondered whether they go round the world blinkered." It's all real, he insists.
Later on, he partially relents: "Greeneland perhaps. I can only say it is the land in which I have passed much of my life."
Greene's latest tale, The Captain and the Enemy, skims familiar territory then. Whether it's his 1938 classic, Brighton Rock (first sentence: "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.") or here, a cool half-century of writing later, when the mysterious Captain appears in a British boys' school quad to claim the then 12-year-old narrator, whom he has "won" in a backgammon game the night before from the lad's indifferent "devil" of a father, Greene is pretty irresistible.
Over a writing career that has produced two dozen novels and assorted other entertainments, Greene's abiding concerns are spiritual and political. He's recurrently fascinated by the relation of the most ordinary sinners to the possibility of grace, and it's been his lot -- a sort of Conradian inheritance -- to depict the rot of imperialism in our century.
The Captain and the Enemy is an improbable love story about a crooked adventurer with "the air of a soldier" (the Captain) and a faithful young woman, Liza, who's been deprived of children by a botched abortion -- the result of a liaison with the kidnapped boy's father. The interest lies less in the circumstances (the boy is deposited in Liza's basement digs as a companion for her during the Captain's frequent absences) than in the theological question of whether love between two rather inarticulate souls can redeem sin and meaninglessness.
The poignancy of this slight romance centres around a love that cannot -- rather than dare got -speak its name. Early on in The Captain and the Enemy, the adventurer takes the boy to the cinema to see King Kong, the fable of the lovelorn gorilla who clambers about the skyscrapers with a blonde girl. The puzzled boy wants to know why the pursued gorilla doesn't drop the girl and effect his escape. "He loves her, boy," the Captain rasps. "Can't you understand that -- he loves her."
The rot of imperialism comes a bit later. The latter half of the novel is set in Panama City, deftly sketched by Greene as a shocking contrast of "tumbledown shacks on which the vultures lodged ... only a few hundred yards from the banks where the high windows glittered in the morning sun, and it was even more of a shock to gaze into the American zone across the mere width of a street, and see the well-kept lawns and the expensive villas on which no vulture ever cared to settle." The landscape of the Captain's last mission is suitably populated by menacing colonials and shadowy CIA operatives.
In a season when senior authors -- Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, and W.O. Mitchell -are prominently in, the lists, the 84-year-old Greene's latest entry is unfortunately not much more substantial than the cover stories of his not-quite-what-they-seem characters. The Captain and the Enemy is Graham Greene concocting a Graham Greene crossword puzzle for his fans. Though it's not much of a literary challenge, the motive is forgiveable: as the narrator says at one point, "As all theologians do, I continue to write in order to turn the question over and over without any hope of an answer." For those of us who are denizens of Greeneland, the most recent turning of the question is unsatisfying, but not without interest. For those who want to know why there are Graham Greene devotees in the first place, they're probably better advised to explore Brighton Rock.