Fairy Tales for Grown-ups

Graham Greene
Graham Greene; drawing by David Levine

A foreigner sits in a square in a border town, looking at the bright lights, the big hotels of the land across the bridge. He has been watching, as everyone in town has, a famous con man, in flight from his creditors, walking around the square with his dog, which he kicks daily. The foreigner feels a kind of kinship with the fugitive—he too, we sense, is in flight from something—and savors the fact that (this being Mexico) everyone in town knows the man is a criminal, except for the two foreign detectives sent to find him. When finally they do catch up with the stranger, the two quickly become his friends and the crook’s safety seems guaranteed. Then, going across the bridge in search of his dog, the fugitive gets hit, by chance, by a passing car driven by one of the detectives:

The detective swerved—he said later, weakly, at the inquiry, that he couldn’t run over a dog, and down went Mr. Calloway, in a mess of broken glass and gold rims and silver hair, and blood…. The attitude in which he lay looked more like a caress than a blow.

The dog bays pitifully beside his master.

“It was comic and it was pitiable,” the narrator goes on, “but it wasn’t less comic because the man was dead.” Nor, one might add, less pitiable. “It all seemed to me a little too touching to be true,” he confesses, “as the old crook lay there with his arm around the dog’s neck, dead with his million between the money-changers’ huts, but it’s as well to be humble in the face of human nature.” Art, he might be saying, is seldom so neat (or so cynical) as one might wish.

To some, perhaps, such a scene might sound almost like a parody of Graham Greene: when an English magazine ran a competition asking its readers to send in a parody of Greene, by some accounts the author himself sent an entry, and came in second. Yet all that is strong and touching about Greene is caught in the vignette, written before any of the major novels came out: the love of paradox, the surrender to a sense of human frailty that makes all paradox redundant, the position on the wrong side of the border, among the fallen, and the sense of companionship being often no more than a fellowship of thieves, but no less real for that. “The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden,” writes Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian, “lives in mystery and fear.” So, too, Greene might suggest, does the man who knows that the secrets of the world are forever known.

Greene’s ability to weave wistfulness and comedy together, his skill at constructing emotional and political webs so intricate that the lightest touch leaves them shaking, has often meant…

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