Title: The Human Factor
Author: Graham Greene
Greene, Graham (1978, 2008). The Human Factor. New York: Penguin Books
PR6013.R44 H8 2008
Date Posted: March 10, 2015
Reviewed by John Leonard
The Human Factor has an interesting plot and a number of promising ideas for characters. It is occasionally puckish. It talks about politics and pity. It traffics in ideology and, of course, religion. It thinks about love. It doesn’t work. Mr. Greene, I am sorry to say, has done a lazy job.
We are introduced to Maurice Castle, a 62-year-old employee of the British Secret Service, working in London for the subdivision on Eastern and Southern Africa. He is married to a black South African, and stepfather to her child. He rides bicycles and takes trains. He walks a dog he doesn’t like. He drinks too much, in secret, because he has a secret: he’s a double agent, passing on information to the Russians about project Uncle Remus, a conspiracy on the part of the English, the Americans, the West Germans and the white South Africans to do bad things. He will be found out.
Before he is found out, a colleague of his—wrongly suspected of being the traitor—will be murdered by his employers with moldy peanuts (aflatoxin: kills the liver cells). His employers don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of the Americans with yet another trial of yet another double-agent. Kim Philby and all that. Castle feels rotten about it.
Why is Castle a double-agent? While he doesn’t approve of Communism in, say, Europe, a brave Communist in South Africa did manage to save the life of his wife, Sarah. “My mother told me that when I was a child I always gave away too much in the swap, but it wasn’t too much for the man who had saved you from BOSS.” He tries to limit his secret services to the dark continent. It is like being a little bit pregnant, or a little bit Catholic.
Portraits Are Fine
Mr. Greene’s portraits of Davis, the failed romantic who is so unfortunate as to be Castle’s colleague; of Daintry, the lonely, honest British security officer; of Muller, the South African police chief with odd ambivalences; of Castle himself and of Buller, his dog, are fine. His portrait of Dr. Percival, the bureaucratic killer who talks all the time about trout-fishing, is a cliché. His portrait of Sarah, the “human factor” in the gamesmanship of monoliths, is nonexistent.
I mean, Sarah isn’t there. We are told a few facts about her, and she makes some remarks, but she is so casually rendered as to seem to belong to a newspaper story or a film magazine. I’m prepared to believe that Castle is capable of love, and thankful that the older Mr. Greene gets the less he seems to regard sex as somehow degrading or an occasion for nausea, but at the very center of this novel, where there should be passion, there is emptiness.
And implausibility: I’m not prepared to believe that the British Secret Service Police, having only two suspects, would on such flimsy evidence murder the wrong one without wondering at length about a man with a black South African wife and the various blackmail possibilities that relationship suggests. (Nor am I prepared to believe that Castle, on not being able to locate his Russian overseer, would go into a Catholic Church and try to confess. He’s not supposed to be a Catholic. Really, these are coldcuts left over from earlier Graham Greene novels.)
Some Improbable Things
There is also, alas, some indifferent writing. A 62-year-old Englishman simply wouldn’t say to a Russian agent that “for seven years I’ve kept my cool, and I’m losing it now.” Nor would he tell his wife, when their world collapses, “Of course it’s not the end. As long as we’re alive we’ll come together again. Somehow. Somewhere.” Is this “West Side Story”? What would Scobie think, or Pinky, or the whisky priest?
The Human Factor is full of scraps, homilies, analogies, generalizations: “Flippancy was like a secret code of which he didn’t possess the book.” “A prejudice had something in common with an ideal.” Genuine Communists “survived Stalin like Roman Catholics survived the Borgias.” Stalin, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were a little like Hamburg, Dresden and Hiroshima. Once again, as in The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, we are advised that innocence can lead to evil. This information no longer comes as a surprise.
And once again a Graham Greene character worries about a brown soul. Castle, in fact, takes stock as if suffering were a commodities market, rather in the spirit of an Edith Wharton, although everything is bloodier. If the state has no pity, and the church is off-limits, and sex is an idea instead of a person, we are left with the telephone. Or the reader: the reader is called upon to be a ministry, not of fear, but of mercy and grace. Castle, after all, meant well.
I know this is impudent to say—because Mr. Greene taught John Le Carré to write such novels, as Joseph Conrad taught Mr. Greene to write such novels—but Mr. La Carré now does the same thing better.