The Popularity Factor: a look at one of Greene’s most enduring works.


Book: The Human Factor

Author: Graham Greene

Date of Publication: 1978

Type: Novel (290 pages).

It is probably fairly obvious that I am one of Mr Greene’s  fans. The obsession has permeated into many facets of my life: from my choice of college, to my reading tastes, and even my predilection in film. I cannot quite remember how this frankly worrying obsession started, but I do know for a fact that the first novel I read was Brighton Rock. Brighton Rock certainly did not automatically spawn the fruits of my eternal love, but I think one small thing did, at the time, leave its mark on me: Pinkie’s matter-of-fact explanation that Heaven had to exist, because, naturally, Hell (and all the smoky brimstone that it contains) did. There could be no Hell without its exact opposite, and as Hell was a definite, so therefore, was Heaven. This reflection of my own views on Roman Catholicism and God (as opposed to my more sanguine friends, who only believed in Hell because Heaven obviously existed), caught me, and led me forward. After The End of the Affair, and The Quiet American, one could safely affirm I was permanently hooked. The rest, as they say, is history. The quest to finish every single novel by him (repudiated or otherwise) was taken on. And this quest has been remarkably fulfilling.

Which leads me back to The Human Factor. Now, The Human Factor is a bit of an oddity for me, mainly because it was left until so late. Apart from Rumour at Nightfall (which is rather difficult to get hold of), I had read almost every single novel by Greene. The only remaining three were The Captain and the Enemy, Travels with my Aunt, and surprisingly, The Human Factor. Surprising, because this was considered one of his best works, and it was certainly one of his most popular. There had been many of time when I had professed myself a Greene fan, only to be caught out sheepishly admitting that I hadn’t read this particular novel. Cue sceptical looks and a plummet in my Greene-cred. So, when I finally got around to The Human Factor, I had been led to believe in its almost mystical power and had, essentially, bought the hype.

That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. There is something about the way in which Greene deals with his subject material that’s masterful, and, at the same time, absolutely unpretentious. One can get stuck into a Greene book; one can forget the time reading the Greene book; Greene books are often imbued with an almost magical power.

However, I find myself as conflicted as the character Castle in the matter of reviewing this book. One side of me enthusiastically eulogises over the good points of this work: namely, the expertly displayed psychological tensions and conflicts, the well-written scenes of thrilling suspense (this is, after all, an espionage novel), the unpredictability of the novel (I, for one, had no idea where it was going, and I am a relatively experienced reader), and the excellent characterisation. On the other hand, I found fault with the pacing, and especially with the ending, which I felt marred the positives. Furthermore, though there was great continuity and smoothness of plot, I found that the whole premise fell a little flat, though this is purely a gut instinct on my part. Terrible as it sounds, I didn’t see the point of the book after I’d finished it, and this marginally spoiled the reading pleasure. But, I will address all of these points in turn.

The Human Factor is an espionage novel with a basic premise: sensitive information has been leaked. The leak has occurred in a department of MI6 that handles data concerning and deriving from the African continent, which, according to one of its agents Castle, “only sees the dullest side of things”. The novel deals with the lives and thoughts with the players involved in investigating and resolving this problem, and how they are affected by the checks that are taking place. The leak is eventually revealed to be the apparently staid and loyal civil servant Castle, and the rest of the novel describes his actions in first trying to prevent exposure, and then in trying to escape with his family once exposure is guaranteed.

Greene’s manipulation and exploration of psychological tensions is exemplary in this novel. The intense love that Castle feels for his wife Sarah, and the extent to which he is willing to go to preserve and encourage that deep bond is touching to read, as well as being beautifully narrated. This yearning is also successfully displayed in the character of Davis, though this yearning translates into a desire for the exotic, for the unusual, for a taste of adventure (this is fairly obvious from the glum references that Davis makes constantly to James Bond and his enviably wild antics). Castle’s fear and craving for stability is so real that one can almost feel the anxiety wrap its tenacious fingers around the reader; Daintry’s pained dilemma between his duty and his sense of friendship, and well as his desire to do everything correctly, is so tangible to the reader as to transmit itself across the page, making us empathise with the character and the difficult decisions he has to make.

The encroaching invasion against the status quo and the inevitable shattering of tranquility that is represented in the repetitious security checks is so skilfully built up within the framework of the novel that one feels the same tension and anxiety as the investigations progress closer and closer to the truth. The insecurities and doubt of each and every character – Castle doubting his actions as a double agent; Davis, the choice of occupation; Daintry, the correctness of the investigation’s routine; Percival, his medical methods and knowledge; and Sarah, her position as a black woman in a white-dominated country – is layered one upon another in such a way that the whole novel becomes a build-up of great uncertainties, leaving one anxious and troubled even after the book is finished. Even the ending is ambiguous, with each and every player of the spy game trapped in a stalemate that leaves the future as painfully uncertain in fiction as it is in reality.

Of course, this novel has plenty of what Greene does best: great scenes of action that keeps the reader in an uncomfortable suspense as the plot unravels. In my opinion, the interview between Daintry and Castle (after Castle believes that his cover has been blown) is one of the most awkward and tense parts of the novel, with both trying to play a cat-and-mouse game with each other, while trying not giving their own position away. Castle’s getaway is also an episode of high thrills, with each stage of his flight providing an excitement and apprehension that makes the reader continue forward with bated breath. From the car ride with the old bookseller, to his coincidental and rather unfortunate meeting with a former acquaintance at the airport hotel, this sequence serves as one of the better written scenes of “epic flight”.

Furthermore, the way in which the plot unravelled made the story line startling and surprising in many ways: after several chapters of carefully building up an image of Castle’s staidness and his loathing of risks, as opposed to Davis’ restlessness, it is casually revealed that Castle is in fact the double agent. The suddenness of Davis’ death serves both as a shock and as a reality check to the reader and to Castle. It also seems to put paid to any doubts of the senior management involved (especially as Castle gives the planted information meant for Davis to the Communists, thus damning Davis in Percival’s eyes), and the pace naturally slows a fraction, until the tension is abruptly heightened again by Muller’s announcement that he believes Castle to be guilty – an assessment that is unfortunately taken seriously by Hargreaves. The starts and stops to the rising tension in the novel, which, to be fair, never entirely goes away, makes the plot exciting and unpredictable.

Even so, I think what I like about this book the most, is the care that Greene put into the characterisation; each individual has been created with extraordinary skill, and the ability to breathe life into paper people is Greene’s greatest achievement here. Each character has been made so vulnerable, and so believable, that one cannot help but empathise and even understand them, no matter how distasteful they seem, or villainous.

Though we know that Castle is technically a double agent, he is redeemed by his love for Sarah and the straits he will put himself through for that love.  His absolute desire for a peaceful existence, contrasted with the nature of his job (and the fact that he leaks information to his supposed “enemy”), gives the reader a picture of touching vulnerability; this is very much enhanced by his secret alcoholism, and Greene’s choosing to reveal his inner thoughts, thoughts which prove him to be a man greatly troubled by the secrecy his life is necessarily shrouded in. Naturally, the idea that all of Castle’s actions are motivated by a sense of gratitude for the Communist who helped him and Sarah escape Africa (a sense of gratitude corroborated by a childhood episode told by his mother), is a finishing flourish that has all the hallmarks of Greeneland genius.

The peripheral characters greatly add to the solid foundation started by the protagonist’s profile. The restless loneliness and almost silly romanticism of Castle’s junior colleague, Davis, adds a nice contrast to the Castle’s sobriety. His flippancy, carelessness, and wild ideas of adventure are what, unfortunately, contributes to his unnatural death, but these traits endear him to the reader, and there is no difficulty in relating to a character who feels stifled by a dead-end office job.

The warmth and humanity generated from these two characters is sharply juxtaposed with the fantastic coldness of Dr Percival, a character whose almost-psychopathic tendencies, are, to me, an object of great fascination. The clinical way in which he endeavours to investigate the security issues, validate his so-called evidence, and then eliminate the risk as discreetly as possible, is terrifying, and yet strangely compulsive reading material, especially when his matter-of-fact conversation is frequently interspersed with obsessive comments on fishing and gourmet food. The sangfroid with which he shrugs off his contribution to Davis’ death, and the possibility of the invalidity of his circumstantial evidence is as shocking to Daintry as it is to us, and this determined detachment is refreshingly dissimilar to the uncertain emotional messiness that pervades the rest of the book and its characters.

Yet, it is the characterisation of Daintry that is the most skilful in this novel. Both straitlaced and easily shocked, both “dull” and self-loathing as a result of it, it is this character that takes the most of my sympathy; he is just so swamped in a mire of loneliness and conflict. This is evident in several scenes: the shooting weekend and the awkward conversation with Hargreaves and Percival that follows; dinner with his daughter, when he spots Davis and is tongue-tied; begging Castle to go with him to his daughter’s wedding; trying to ring his daughter and getting her married name wrong; the disaster that was his attendance at the wedding; breaking his wife’s ornaments and causing pandemonium at the wedding reception; and his tortured dilemma after his revealing conversation with Castle, to name but a few. All of these aptly portray the conflicting ideas within poor Daintry that are tearing him apart. Though Castle is the protagonist, it is Daintry who is the living embodiment of all the loneliness, fear and doubt that is hinted at throughout the book.

However, though the novel has many good points, its faults still have to be addressed. The pacing of the story was relatively good for a significant part of the novel, but I found that the novel ended rather suddenly, and as such, the tensions created from the getaway and Castle’s stay in Russia was abruptly stopped by the ending of the story, rather than it fading away gently. I came to the end of the book genuinely expecting to have thirty pages more or so to read, and the fact that I didn’t left me uncomfortable and slightly winded. There was no resolution of the problems within the novel, and moreover, there didn’t seem to be a hope of any.

I think this feeling of hollowness was very much accentuated by the fact that the concepts discussed didn’t exactly reach out to me. I did think that the characterisation and conflicts of the novel were beautifully written, yet The Human Factor did not cause me pain to read, and it did not make me think upon my actions, my thoughts, or my interactions with those around me. For example, the actions and decisions of Fowler in The Quiet American left me thoughtful and troubled for days afterwards, with the same question revolving around and round in my head: did he make the right choice? Though The Human Factor displays the vulnerabilities that characterise being human very well, that, to me, was all it did: it displayed human emotions in all its glorious ugliness, but didn’t question or test them, simply accepted them as defined axioms, and built a plot from them.

What makes Graham Greene such a fantastic read is the incredibly fresh nature of his ideas: his exploration of the concepts of honour, love, morality, and fear, and the conflicts that ensue when these clash, is so contemporary as to be as relevant to readers today as it was thirty years ago, and it will be equally relevant to future generations. However, I feel that Greene’s superior ability to display, in breathtaking detail, the countless shades of assorted emotions, has been better showcased in other novels. Though this book is a good read, and a successfully seething mass of tension, paranoia, and all-round uncertainty, it is not as deserving of its popularity as, say, The Power and the Glory, which to me, is a masterpiece. It is heart-warming in places, and gripping in others, but it has many of the human flaws that make it a truly flesh-and-blood drama, and it did not manage to attain the godlike heights of perfection. Nevertheless, The Human Factor was certainly an enjoyable foray into Greeneland, and one I certainly do not regret.


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