The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene - review by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux

What the Hell is Going on?

The Captain and the Enemy


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In his long and distinguished career as a novelist Graham Greene has often flirted with the simple adventure story (‘There is a great deal of Boys’ Own Paper in Greene,’ V S Pritchett once told me). But he has shied away from explicit outward bounding and he has always chosen to thicken his plots with theology or politics – he is practically the innovator of what is now known as ‘liberation theology,’ the bane of archbishops everywhere. On the other hand, one of the strongest appeals of Greene novels and travel books is their treatment of adventure: the brothel, the binge, the back-street, the misfit in a far-off place. It is Greene’s RLS side, and it must be said that Greene himself has frequently mentioned with pride his family relationship to Stevenson (Greene is also related to Christopher Isherwood, but we don’t hear much about that). Greene shares with RLS a love of pirates, remittance men and freebooters – men who live on the dangerous edge of things; of distant places, and of the sentiment in the Kipling verse:

God bless the friendly islands
here warrants never come,
God bless the just republics
That give a man a home.

This verse was quoted in Greene’s Getting to Know the General and is mentioned twice in his newest novel, The Captain and the Enemy. It is a sort of Greeneland anthem.

The Captain and the Enemy shows Greene in his frankest RLS mood, writing what would probably be a great story for boys if it weren’t so muddled in the telling. It is a doubtful novel but it is a delicious fantasy. It contains the dream of a wonderful (but absent) mother, a diabolical father, a wicked aunt, and a heroic saviour in the form of a grizzled, scruffy and piratical con-man. It is full of fantasies – of bunking from school and running away from home. At the same time; of being raised by a gentle, kindly child-woman; of rejecting and insulting the diabolical father; of realising the dream of independence and faraway places, and of striking gold. It is, in short, a tremendous yarn.

The boy-hero in the story, Victor Baxter (another fulfilled wish here when he changes his name to Jim) is straight out of Greene’s ‘The Basement Room’, but he is also a boy out of Kipling, RLS, RM Ballantyne or your very own Nobel-prize winner, William Golding. His is the innocent little tabula rasa on two feet watching the big clumsy adults scheme and connive, and he never quite understands that they are evil and he is good. But, so what, as long as there is a whole world out there teeming with life and sunshine, and places with names like Valparaiso.

The first 30 pages are brilliant. Victor is summoned by his head master and told that a certain man has permission to take him out for the day. Nowadays this would give rise to a suspicion of pederasty or child abuse, but in the dear dim time when the early part of this story is set – perhaps the fifties, though it sounds like the twenties – it is a little odd but quite innocent. When the man takes Victor to lunch we see immediately that the fellow is a hustler, and probably a charlatan, though the boy hasn’t the slightest clue. Victor is spirited away by the man, brought to the house of the man’s mistress and discussed – the boy hears everything but doesn’t understand completely.

It emerges that the man – The Captain – has won Victor from his father in a game of backgammon. Won him? Yes. The boy is not particularly surprised. He calls his father ‘the Devil’ and he is more than happy to move into the little ménage with the Captain and Liza. This young woman, the Captain’s mistress, was once the boy’s father’s mistress until she had an abortion. She has always wanted her own child and with the arrival of Victor her life is complete, even though the boy has been abducted and her lover is away most of the time, buccaneering, robbing and cheating.

So many secrets! But hugger-mugger and plottiness are the essence of adventure: the story rushes on, sparing us the details. Cut to the chase, they say in Hollywood when a film begins to flag. This novel does just that whenever awkward questions might be asked. This excellent first section draws to a close before we can frame questions such as – Has the boy grown up? Did the police or the truant officers go after him? Has he been educated by the woman? What year is it? Has he been hiding all this time? How old is he? What happened to his father? Has he a girlfriend? What the hell is going on?

The following episode reveals that the first section is a sort of memoir that he has found after many years, and that he is a sort of provincial journalist in England, and that because Liza is now dying he is setting off to find the Captain, who is now in Panama, adventuring on his own. Instead of clearing up a mystery, it creates one, but – no matter – we are soon into the third part, a diaristic account of Victor (now Jim) in Panama, looking for the Captain (who has three other aliases). Jim/Victor is older but no wiser, and he does not grasp (though it is clear to the reader) that the Captain is running guns into Nicaragua , that a CIA agent is lurking and beckoning, and that he – the boy – grown-older – has the worst possible contacts in Panama. Never mind! Cut to the chase! The Captain is flying by the seat of his pants, and when the boy he won so many years ago in a backgammon game delivers a message that the mistress he neglected has died the Captain crashes and the boy disappears.

There is an epilogue. The boy’s manuscript is found in his hotel room and it is examined by the bewildered Panamanians. We learn that he has run off to a fantasy place he though of many years ago, the betwitchingly-named Valparaiso.

You would have to be a very hard-hearted non-dreamer to mock this book. It is a kind of homage to RLS, since it is so reminiscent of Jim Hawkins being captivated by Long John Silver. It is a pirate story for our time. And it is not cluttered with intrusive details – they are the death of adventure stories. If an author is persuasive enough in his belief you are carried away – this is certainly the case with Treasure Island, Coral Island, and Prester John. The trouble with The Captain and the Enemy is its form. Too much of it is story-within-story, and it is incredible that the boy’s disappearance wasn’t found out. There are too many evasions and omissions, and there are no real relationships at all – everyone is arbitrarily paired-up; everyone is alone.

The curious thing is that these ideas are the strengths of Greene’s fiction – that no marriages succeed, no couples continue, and no children have a conventional upbringing; love nearly always falters – that is the nature of love, its intense brevity; and friends go away, leaving the central character in an immense (but very interesting) landscape. That is how life is in Greeneland and elsewhere. But this novel, which seems to be about how life isn’t, is weakened by what Greene himself might call a sense of reality, too many questions left unanswered, because there is not enough adventure and – worst problem of all – too much time passes. The beauty of Treasure Island is that the whole adventure takes a relatively short time: Jim is still a boy at the end of it. But The Captain and the Enemy is almost the whole of a man’s life, even though it seems less like a life than an anecdote or a tall tale.

Am I wrong? Since the father is repeatedly called The Devil, the Captain might be God – always invisible and elusive and very hard to fathom, raising up some, casting down others; and Liza – the pure sweet uncomplaining stepmother might be the Virgin Mary. In this reading the book has theological and cosmic significance and is full of implication for the salvation of our immortal souls, and not a yarn; but I don’t think so.

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