The Captain And The Enemy, by Graham Greene
Graham Greene’s writings sometimes betray a serious attempt to overcome his native cynicism by writing from the point of view of an appealing and innocent (and even naive) character, and such is the case here. That is not to say that this novel is anything other than cynical, for it is deeply so, but it is cynicism with a deeper purpose in allowing the reader to fancy oneself smarter and more on the ball than the narrator. This is a pleasing effect in that it allows the writer and the reader to adopt an alliance by triangulating against the somewhat clueless naif narrator. Perhaps some readers will find this to be a shabby trick, but many readers who are used to dealing with unreliable or not very knowledgeable narrators will find much to appreciate in an approach that forces the reader to keep one’s wits honed in order to pick up what the narrator is not quite clever enough to realize. In a novel like this one, there is a lot that the narrator is simply unaware of that the reader would do well to pay attention to, especially as the novel reaches its surprising conclusion.
The plot of the novel is itself a relatively simple one and takes less than 200 pages to wind its way to its conclusion. The novel begins as a strangely domestic one similar to “The Fallen Idol,” where a boy is taken out of a private school by someone who is clearly shady who claims that he won the boy in a backgammon game as part of a bet from the boy’s father, who had impregnated the woman the shady captain loves and then coerced her into getting an abortion. The boy then is raised with some irregular schooling as the captain, who appears to have some major commitment issues, stays away from them while earning a living through various acts of crime like running guns to Communist rebels in El Salvador and Nicaragua or engaging in robberies. About halfway through the novel the boy’s surrogate mother dies and he goes to Panama to follow the captain (the titular “devil” being the narrator’s father), winding up in political matters well above his limited knowledge of the world, where again there is a triangulation that he does not understand that ends up involving the reader in all kinds of guesses as to what game the characters are engaged in.
There are obviously some very serious matters that this novella deals with. There is the question of our ability to know our best interests or to avoid getting ourselves in mortal peril. There is the question of parenting and what are the responsibilities of mothers and fathers and even aunts and those who serve in loco parentis. There is the question of trust that haunts so much of Greene’s work, as one might think him someone who was not completely trustworthy himself, a not inaccurate impression the more one knows about his troubled political and personal life. As one might guess, the author’s cynical views of the Cold War and Latin American politics–two things it pays to be cynical about–shines through in this somewhat obscure novel, but the fact that this cynical tale is told through the eyes of a naive and largely ignorant protagonist and narrator, with a somewhat complex narrative structure that involves letters and the question of love makes this a novel that repays the close reading of whoever happens to come across it and find it worthy of interest. It is likely that most people who read any Greene book will find it worthy of interest.