The Confidential Agent, by Graham Greene
I have to admit that although this book was a bit long at 300 pages (long because the text itself would suggest the book should be shorter), there is a lot to enjoy here. This may not be considered one of the author’s great novels by any means , but it is a compelling tale of an idealistic Spanish liberal on the side of the government trying unsuccessfully to obtain some much-needed coal for his side dealing unsuccessfully with the eventually successful fascist rebels. Politically speaking, I must admit I have little if any sympathy for the main character, or others of his ilk in my contemporary society whose merciless destruction I could likely think about with some equanimity, but Greene (who was far more sympathetic to his protagonist) does wrap him with enough decent humanity to make him worth caring about in spite of his leftist politics. And it is worthwhile to have a protagonist in a novel to root for, even if simply to root for his getting home to be inevitably slaughtered by the victorious fascists, who would not let a man like this one live.
The novel is rather intriguingly divided into several parts. The first half or so of the novel consists of the protagonist meeting up with some strangely “coincidental” happenings that he takes (correctly) to be tied to various intrigue between his side and the side of Franco’s rebels. As a result of this intrigue he finds himself under observation, has his papers stolen from him so he is unable to complete his deal, and is about to be framed for the murder of a young and pert maid he had befriended, when he suddenly snaps into action and refuses to be a victim. At this moment the story becomes much better as the protagonist ponders the meaning of the Song of Roland and tries to stir the tepid workers of the coal mines to his side while evading the English police and trying, eventually successfully, to leave for home with a woman somehow in love with him. Even if our life expectancy is as short as the protagonist’s, someone who everyone involved, himself included, realizes is doomed, that is something we can all appreciate. Indeed, the last section of the book is called “The End,” and one wonders how far off the end actually is for our brave Spanish academic.
In reviewing this book I feel somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, Greene does a good job at portraying the humanity of someone who is totally unsuited for the life of a secret agent for a government struggling for its life against brutal fascist enemies. Our hero is a man who should have the love of a good woman and a life spent reading and interpreting ancient poetry. Yet the novel presents a world not so unlike our own where everyone, even those wholly unsuited to an existence of violence and subterfuge, has to pick sides. I read this novel not as something interesting about the troubled 1930’s, but as something that could very easily happen to me–the protagonist is a very Nathanish person, after all–and that gave the novel a sense of grounding in reality that many readers probably do not view it with. The more you can see this novel as having the savor of truth, the more you can see the reality that there are no neutrals, and that in the face of violence people must ultimately choose whom they serve. There has always been a war going on that demanded such a choice, but few times has it been as obvious as it is in the novel and in our own lives.
 See, for example: