The innocent on the sage

Graham Greene:
April 7, 1995

The mainstream of critical opinion has tended to dismiss the last phase of Graham Greene's fiction as a falling off from the high point of Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940). Scant critical notice has been given to Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1980), Monsignor Quixote (1982) and the memoir Getting to Know the General (1984). Indeed for many admirers of Greene these books are something of an embarrassment. I disagree. Religion and politics, which were the staple of Greene's earlier fiction, were always embarrassing to some of his admirers, who preferred to gloss over these essential elements with effusions about Greene's craftsmanship and literary qualities.

Leopoldo Duran's Graham Greene: Friend and Brother should provoke a reassessment of the last phase of Greene's work. Monsignor Quixote, Greene's last novel, which was dedicated to Father Duran, is a great parable about Christian charity. It is a picaresque tale about the innocent joys of living - conversation, wine, cheese and quiet laughter - and a life enriched by friendship. Duran's memoir describes the novel's genesis, as well as many factual details transmuted into luminous form in the novel.

Duran was a friend of Greene for 20 years during which the novelist and the priest corresponded, met frequently and travelled annually through northern Spain, playing and interchanging the roles of Quixote and Sancho Panza. The measured pace of the novel, with its wisdom, verve and good humour, can be traced to the shared experience of these Spanish travels. Duran's book, which is about its author as well as Greene, is full of enchanting and revealing reflections on the family roots in the Spanish peasantry of Duran's religious faith, which he brought to bear on his theological and literary work. Greene was clearly touched by Duran's childlike delight in all he did, his unworldliness, and the joy and simplicity of his faith.

Indeed Greene seems deliberately to have sought out a father confessor with whom he could both relax and share the burdens of his soul. As Duran explains the bond, "My being a priest was the magic key that opened our private worlds to each other. We never used that overworn phrase - and one that is so often broken! - 'this is secret' . . . . It was Graham Greene's obsessive faith, and the problems it engendered, that provided the basis of our friendship. Without this obsessive faith, which was constantly at war with itself (in this sense he was the English Unamuno) and the fact that I was a priest, such a relationship would never have been possible." Duran openly told Greene: "I do not believe in God, I touch him."

Politically he shared little of Greene's sympathy for the Sandinistas, nor did he appreciate Greene's commitment to the revolutionary struggle against dictatorships in Latin America. In fact he suggests that Greene's frequent journeys to Panama to help his friend General Torrijos in his negotiations with the United States about the Panama Canal undermined Greene's health. Duran goes out of his way to defend Franco as also to distance himself from Greene's radicalism and his unorthodox Catholicism. But as an old-fashioned priest free of intellectual and theological orthodoxies, he does appreciate Greene's commitment to the ideals of communism and he reveals that Christopher Hill much admired The Human Factor.

Duran's book is a useful source book for Greene scholars writing about other works of the last phase. It has much to say about Greene's friend Chuchu, the nickname of Jose Martinez, professor of philosophy and mathematics with a weakness for women, immortalised in Getting to Know the General - a character who makes Duran circumspect in his writing. He clearly disapproves of Chuchu and is distressed to find that Greene sees a similarity between Martinez and his friend.

The humour on the surface of the relationship between the innocent and the sage conceals the spiritual strength Greene derived from this friendship. He felt a constant need to keep in touch with the man who was a source of companionship, amusement and solace in the final two decades of his long and eventful life. Duran brings a mellowness and compassion to the understanding of Greene's troubled sensibility with his reflections on his friend's disastrous marriage which was yet the source of his greatness as a writer. He celebrates the depth of Vivien Greene's faith: "Vivien was the channel for grace . . . (Graham's) particular temperament transformed this mark of faith into a veritable obsession. To put it any other way would be pure misunderstanding."

Duran concludes that Greene made theology the backbone of virtually everything he wrote, but it was theology in the broadest sense. Duran's book is not a reasoned theological analysis. It is emotional, revelatory, charismatic. Both Greene and Duran shared mantras relevant only to them and which those on the outside may see as meaningless and trivial. In the last phase of his life, Greene sought to enter faith through reason, while Duran told him that faith could not be attained through reason, not even through honest doubt. Is it only cradle Catholics, as Anthony Burgess has said, who have faith, who can believe in the transmutation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ without experiencing the torments of scepticism? But then Vivien Greene was not a cradle Catholic, Duran reminds us. Ultimately faith is an illusion, a dream which Quixote turned into reality. Greene's tragedy was that he woke up too often. According to Duran, it was only at the end of his life and in the peace of his acceptance of death that Graham Greene found faith.

Maria Couto is the author of Graham Greene: On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the Novels.

Graham Greene:: Friend and Brother

Author - Leopoldo Duran
ISBN - 0 00 6660 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 345pp

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