| Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in The End of the Affair
I was recently invited to see a film based on Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. I agreed because I remembered being moved by the novel as a teenage reader. I also recalled enjoying, as a young woman, Greene's 'whisky-priest' novels, particularly Monsignor Quixote; and later, the books that told of Greene's appetite for travel, adventure and danger.
The End of the Affair has two parallel tracks of obsessive love running through it. One is between the married woman Sarah and her lover, Bendrix, and the other is Sarah's love for the god who she makes a bargain with: if her lover survives a wartime raid on London, she will give him up. The sacrifice of love in return for the beloved's life is a potent formula that resonates for Indian readers with our baggage of romanticism and human-divine deals.
The film, however, seemed to highlight the worst aspects of the novel. There was the tedious sameness of the obsessive love. There was also the almost cloying equivalence the woman seems to work out between her chosen penance and the lover's safety; it was as if karva chauth had suddenly strayed into the triangular relationship among an English woman, her lover and her god.
The woman dies, and worst of all, towards the end of the book, there are a couple of miraculous cures linked with her, a miracle that breaks down an atheist's defences and moves him a little closer to belief. Perhaps it was not just the film. Greene himself expressed some discomfort with the novel's strategies, particularly the miracle. 'The incident of the atheist Smythe's strawberry mark (apparently cured by Sarah after her death) should have had no place in the book...' he wrote. 'Every so-called miracle...ought to have had a completely natural explanation. The coincidences should have continued over the years, battering the mind of Bendrix, forcing on him a reluctant doubt of his own atheism.... In a later edition...Smythe's strawberry mark gave place to a disease of the skin which might have had a nervous origin and be susceptible to faith healing.'
It seemed to me a pity to let go entirely the memory of the young reader I was, so I didn't make myself re-read The End of the Affair. But the film also stirred my memories of Greeneland, and led me to revisit bits and pieces of Greene's considerable work. In a writing career that spanned the decades from the Thirties to the Nineties, Graham Greene produced a body of work that encompasses the earnest but rough-hewn early novel, The Man Within; the mature Christian refashioning of the parable of the lost sheep in The Power and the Glory and A Burnt-Out Case; and the urbane but conscience-sensitive cosmopolitanism of The Quiet American. Greene's work returned, time and again, to the key themes of betrayal, pursuit and the search for peace.
Greene also became a travelling writer. In the second part of his autobiography, Greene wrote: 'So I began...looking back on circumstances...and on some of the troubled places in the world where I found myself involved for no good reason, though I can see now that my travels, as much as the act of writing, were ways of escape....'
A friend questioned Greene, as he was writing Getting to Know the General, about his enduring interest in Spain and Latin America. The answer included the several layers that unfold in any voyage to Greeneland ' the seduction of the adventurous, the bizarre; the overlapping zone between dream and reality; and always, the writer's fascination with the political workings underlying events, his urge to be at 'the dangerous edge of things'. 'In those countries,' wrote Greene, 'politics have seldom meant a mere altercation between rival political parties but have been a matter of life and death.' The grappling with reality (the imminence of death) and the unpredictable world of dreams mingle irresistibly when Greene is in Latin America, 'on the edge of destruction,' amid 'a sense of the temporary, the precarious.'
Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Africa, Panama. Greene attempted, in his political documentation of these places, a perspective of the struggling individual, an Everyman. In a country, for instance, divided by the Canal Zone and the American interest looming large and menacing over it, Greene wanted, through his human portraits, to bring alive the divided existence of 'the small country of my dreams'. Chuchu, Sergeant Jose de Jesus Martinez, poet, mathematician and philosopher, Greene's companion on his Panamanian voyage of discovery, tantalizes with his pithy profundities in the midst of alcohol, sex, and a menagerie of refugees. An example: 'If shit were money, the poor would be born without arses.' Little wonder then that Chuchu became Greene's 'guide, philosopher and friend', taking him through a whirl of political intrigue, the human comedy of lust and passion, committed political refugees in need of arms and asylum, and even the mundanely adventurous ' haunted houses and the gold route of the Spanish conquistadors.
If the ever-present tussle between the committed and the uncommitted is the recurring theme in Greene's work, it is the unforgettable quixotic character in search of La Mancha ' the whisky-priest of The Power and the Glory, Monsignor Quixote, Chuchu in Getting to Know the General ' who represent Greene's contribution to an understanding of individual survival against a background of corruption, doubt and despair. Getting to Know the General is one route Greene travelled. The other route is taken by novels such as Monsignor Quixote, a picaresque tale of a contemporary Don Quixote. A small-time priest (a much loved character in Greene's work) is unable to buckle down to pat formulas of dogma, and he takes to the road in quest of understanding. His Sancho is the deposed communist mayor of his native town.
Communism and Christianity, the party and the Church, and the various levels of dogma, hope and doubt they engender, keep the two travellers company as they drive a battered car, their Rocinante, across the countryside. Equipped with their respective ideologies, Quixote and Sancho battle with contemporary windmills, personified by the Guardia Civil of post-Franco Spain.
Greene's Quixote is obsessed with doubt. For him, the absence of a need to doubt would mean ultimate despair. Monsignor Quixote is a rare individual, completely alone in his chosen Christian landscape, a broken old man who dies enacting the rituals of the mass forbidden to him. The real survivor is Sancho: he survives their journey of doubt and wine-inspired polemic, and partakes of Quixote's friendship and vision, to emerge enriched, and escape from the Guardia Civil to his comrades across the border. Greene's novel is no mere drama of isms reduced to crude simplicities. Monsignor Quixote is Greene's tribute to the possibilities of the quixotic spirit, and the friendship and love it inspires among men. This novel too, on occasion, recalled for me Orwell's complaint that Greene 'appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingu' in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only.' But Greene's Quixote and Sancho create together, in a way The End of the Affair doesn't, a vital story of involvement.