BOOKS

A prodigal father

The master returns to bleak literary terrain

GEOFFREY JAMES September 26 1988
BOOKS

A prodigal father

The master returns to bleak literary terrain

GEOFFREY JAMES September 26 1988

A prodigal father

BOOKS

The master returns to bleak literary terrain

THE CAPTAIN AND THE ENEMY By Graham Greene

(Lester & Orpen Dennys, 189 pages, $19.95)

Just why Graham Greene is so compelling and disturbing a writer becomes evident in the first page of The Captain and the Enemy, his 24th novel. The book’s narrator, 21-year-old journalist Victor Baxter, recalls his first encounter with the man who has cast so large a shadow over his life. The elusive figure called the Captain turns up at the English boarding school

where Victor is a pupil on the boy’s 12th birthday. “He carried a walking-stick over his shoulder at the slope like a soldier with a rifle,” Victor recollects. “I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father.”

Nothing is certain about the Captain, who turns out to be a compulsive con man. He takes the boy out for a munificent lunch— and then leaves without paying the bill. Soon, Victor accompanies him to London, becoming an instant, ready-made son for the Captain’s girlfriend, Liza. Victor leads a solitary existence, growing up in a seedy London basement in the 1960s. He does not suffer undu-

ly—at least no more than the usual Greene character. For this, after all, is Greeneland, a bleak literary terrain whose centre is a great abyss of loneliness and Mure.

Curiously, one of the book’s strengths is that the story is told by someone who is, by his own confession, a failed writer and emotionally numbed. Victor’s memoir reads like a painfully authentic attempt by a beginning writer to piece together his own childhood and to plumb the mystery of the relationship between the Captain and Liza. But Victor remains incapable of knowing what love is, writing about it the way a tone-deaf man would describe a symphony.

Certainly, the love between the Captain and Liza is unconventional. The Captain regularly disappears into the netherworld of crime, turning up after long absences with a new beard or moustache. Liza, lacklustre and uneducated, remains fiercely loyal. Victor discovers that she was once his own father’s mistress—but learns little of his father from her.

The novel takes a sudden turn when Victor follows the

0 Captain to Panama in the

1 early 1970s. In neighboring

2 Nicaragua, the Sandinista guerrillas are fighting to g oust dictator Anastasio Sog moza, but, inexplicably, jour| nalist Victor is unaware of § the conflict. He is also slow

to figure out the nature of the Captain’s shady enterprise in Central America. Revelation comes very late in the story, when the Captain indulges in a single, great impulsive political gesture that casts a new light on his obsessively devious life.

The surprise ending of The Captain and the Enemy sits uneasily on a novel that, for most of its length, strives for a transparent honesty. Greene has chosen to cap the tale with heavy irony—a contrivance that recalls the kind of forced short story that always has a kicker in the last sentence. The book may in fact be a short story masquerading as a novel. Only Greene’s consummate narrative skill can maintain that disguise—at least for most of the novel.

GEOFFREY JAMES