The Honorary Consul
“What shall we do now, Father?” the Negro asked.
“Kill Fortnum at once,” Aquino said, “and if the lights go out again we can make a run for it.”
Pablo said, “Two of us are dead already. It might be better, Father, if we surrendered. And there is Marta here.”
‘But the Mass, Father?”
“It seems to me I shall have to make it a Mass for the dead,” Father Rivas said.
“Say any sort of Mass you like,” Aquino said, “but kill the Consul first.”
“How could I say the Mass after I had killed him?”
“Why not if you can say a Mass when you intend to kill him?” Doctor Plarr said.
“Ah, Eduardo, you are still enough of a Catholic to know how to turn the knife in the wound. You will be my confessor yet.”
—The Honorary Consul
The story goes that at a certain time—presumably not long after the completion of The End of the Affair (1951)—Mr. Greene told Evelyn Waugh that his next novel would not be “a Catholic one.” “That might be a mistake,” Waugh is said to have replied. “For you to drop God would be rather like Plum Wodehouse dropping Jeeves.” Wodehouse of course never quite dropped Jeeves, or Mr. Greene God. Jeeves got rather less funny and Mr. Greene’s God rather more so.
The series of novels that opened in 1955 with The Quiet American and that includes The Honorary Consul is free from overt apologetics, crisp and increasingly irreverent in tone, often apparently cynical, preoccupied with the absurd, and especially the cruel absurdities of politics. As might be expected, the same tendencies show in the short stories, especially in the very latest ones (minus the politics). You might think the Greene God was dead—I had had the impression myself that he was at any rate not very well. But no, he is still around, just manifesting himself differently, and more cunningly.
Nothing particularly cunning, you may say, about Father Rivas and his Mass for the dead. True, Father Rivas is a stereotype of the Catholic revolutionary priest, much harder to believe in than God. The passage about his Mass for the dead is funny in a way the author probably did not quite intend—in this more like before The End of the Affair than after. But normally, of course, Greene is funny in precisely the way he intends to be and so is his God. Humiliation is the essence of the work. If Mr. Greene and his God often seem cruel as well as funny it is that they are interested in producing humiliation, a cruel process, and also funny, when neatly done, as by Mr. Greene, whatever about God.
Humiliation, a constant throughout Mr. Greene’s work, is at the core of The Honorary Consul. The story is told, in the main, as seen by Doctor Eduardo Plarr, a clever man. It is mainly about the British…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.