Browsing the web for the bookcover image for this post, I was astonished to discover that there are study guides for this title. Perhaps I should not have been surprised because I first read Greene for my HSC (Higher School Certificate): we studied The Power and the Glory, the book that sent me off to the library to devour every other Greene I could find. The Power and the Glory, however, is a longer book with weightier themes, and deserving of its status as one of Time’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923-2005. Today’s students are perhaps being shortchanged if this book is their introduction to Greene because it’s not one of his best.
It’s not one of his best because it’s not long enough. (He wrote it in 1988, three years before his death at the age of 87). The Penguin 20th Century Classics paperback copy that I chanced upon at the library is only 189 pages and that’s with a font larger than usual. Kind on my eyes, but I suspect that the reason for the font has more to do with commercial reasons, turning a novella into something that looks more respectable for a Year 12 or (surely not?) undergraduate text for study. (No, I’m not going to get on the soapbox about today’s students’ unwillingness to read anything longer than a TV guide, what would be the point? BTW, students searching for crib notes in this post will be disappointed and serves them right.)
So, to the book…
Victor Baxter is a schoolboy at a minor boarding school when he is whisked away for a day out by ‘the captain’ who, it turns out, has ‘won’ the boy in a game of backgammon. Offered the chance to ‘shoot through’ altogether, Victor takes it, for he is an Amalekite, a victim of the war of extinction between the school’s bullies and those who do not belong. (But is he an innocent victim? Now there’s an essay question, eh?) Victor’s mother is dead, and his father is completely disinterested in him, palming him off on his awful Aunt for the holidays. He has the patina of a poor lost little boy to engage our sympathies, but Greene is too smart for that. His central character – like everyone else – is entirely amoral.
What rascals Greene creates! This Captain is a rogue, as Victor quickly learns when they dupe a friendly innkeeper over payment for a lavish lunch. The Captain has money for ‘essentials’ – but paying one’s way isn’t essential, not in the amoral world that Victor soon joins. He ends up at Liza’s, a drab basement flat where he lives in idleness throughout his boyhood. (He goes to school only when his Aunt tracks him down with a private detective and insists on it.)
Liza is a forlorn and pathetic creature too. Victor’s father got her pregnant; a botched abortion has left her barren. Victor is the Captain’s idea of a consolation prize - a substitute for the child she can never have. It looks symbolic of a faint bit of justice for Liza, but of course it’s not. Victor paying for the sins of the father? There’s another essay question.
Victor is renamed Jim – and James means ‘supplanter’. (It’s a derivative of Jacobus, as in Esau and Jacob. What does he offer in exchange for the firstborn’s birthright?) He reminded me of The Outsider by Camus. Confronted by moral choices, he asks ‘why not?’ and takes the line of least resistance. He has no meaningful relationship with anyone: not with Liza whose circumscribed life consists of hiding in the basement waiting for the Captain to return from his frequent disappearances; and not with the Captain whose real identity he does not know. He recognises that he is an ‘offering’ for Liza, (and an unsatisfactory one at that) and that he matters to neither of them in his own right. He despises his father and loathes his Aunt and his fleeting relationships with girls offer nothing much either.
I suppose the reason this book is chosen for senior study is because of the enigmatic aspects of the Captain’s role as an espionage agent – because spies presumably appeal to adolescents - though how an harassed English teacher might explain about the Sandinistas and the CIA without being accused of being anti-American I do not know. A cursory web search reveals nothing that appears to be ‘even handed’ – and yet there must be an American point-of-view to justify their excursions into Latin politics (although I have no idea what it might be).
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The crib sheets online (such as I could access without payment – do students really pay for such stuff?) tell me that the book is about love. Not love by or for the supplanter, (he doesn’t deserve any, it seems), but the question which torments him: is there love between Liza and the Captain? Is the Captain King Kong to Liza’s Ann Darrow? As a boy at the cinema Jim can’t understand why King Kong doesn’t drop her, and as an adult he doesn’t understand why the Captain would take on risky ventures (very risky ventures!) to support his burden. The real question is, why doesn’t Jim understand this? There’s another essay question!
For me, the real interest in this slim book is not whether the Captain is a hero when he tried to plunge his plane into Somoza’s palace, nor whether Mr Quigly is behind the failure, nor about what happens to Jim at the end. These are schoolboy distractors, which may translate well into a B-grade film but are not the main focus. It’s the title that’s the focus; it’s the moral ambiguities and the religious sub-text for which Greene’s work is rightly admired.
What a pity Greene didn’t live long enough to do more with this book!