Book: The Captain and the Enemy
Author: Graham Greene
Date of Publication: 1988
Type: Novel (194 Pages).
Before I start on this review, I would just like to proffer my humblest apologies to any reader that has been experiencing agonising withdrawal symptoms through my lack of recent reviews. I have been manically busy recently, as I have been involved in what is known as a “College Telethon”: this involves exposing alumni of The Glorious College to the wonder that is my sexily husky voice, whilst politely requesting for a monetary contribution to The Glorious College. Yes, it is a fundraising initiative; yes, I have had my fair share of phones being slammed on me. It also means that I have very little spare time, and that the little spare time I do have is usually spent not writing reviews, but doing something a little more meaningful, like washing dishes, for example. So, having taken an enforced hiatus of precisely 10 days, I am now back, and am on (potentially) sparkling form.
It has been declared before that I am a Great Graham Greene (such fantastic alliteration) fan. In light of this great partiality of mine, I have decided to alternate my reviews between Greene and non-Greene works. This “brilliant” scheme will very probably last until
- I get bored and restless and move on to something else to review,
- I get bored of reviewing altogether and drop this illustrious enterprise, or
- I run out of Graham Greene novels to review.
I am happy to tell the reader that the last possibility is very, very unlikely to happen.
Even so, until that sad hour of my distraction, when I scamper off from the much-loved territory of Greeneland, I shall boldly continue to alternate between the two; and I shall continue the precedence set by my review on The Human Factor, by now publishing one on Greene’s last finished, and fully published work, The Captain and the Enemy.
In my opinion, it is almost impossible for any author to maintain a consistent standard in all his works, and when some of these works are masterpieces (as is the case for Mr Greene), it is an unfortunate inevitability that some works will appear to be sub-standard in comparison.
This, unfortunately, is the case for The Captain and the Enemy. It was his last book published before he died in April 1991, and is not one of the well-known ones. I don’t even think that it’ll be presumptuous to assume that many so-called Greene fans (who have possibly only read Brighton Rock, and perhaps, The Power and The Glory), haven’t even heard of it, let alone read it. Therefore, it is up to the hard-core enthusiast to read it, and thus place themselves in a position to review it.
Now, it cannot be said that this book is the very best. However, even though it isn’t, it has a raw vulnerability that touches me very much. In this review, I will endeavour to analyse the merits and demerits of The Captain and the Enemy, expanding on its qualities – its great emotional depth; the mysterious and exciting nature of its basic premise; and its occasional humour – as well as assessing its flaws: its abrupt ending through a fast declining plot; and its bewildering lack of genre.
The Captain and the Enemy is narrated from the perspective of a young man called Victor Baxter, who continues onwards to recount his life with “the Captain”, a shady character whom he first met when the Captain successfully kidnaps him. He then grows up with the Captain and Liza, a nervous woman whom he is meant to keep company. Events in his life continue along the same pattern for a while (frequent absences from the Captain, unexplained visits from the police, and the constant anxiety exhibited by Liza in between letters and visits from the Captain), until the death of Liza, an occasion which prompts Baxter to relocate to Panama (where the Captain seemed to be) to try to discover just what the Captain is involved in. Consequently, Baxter is drawn into the politics and intrigues of that troubled Central American state, with unexpected consequences.
Even though part of my criticism of The Captain and The Enemy is due to the “espionage” part of the novel, I do have to admit that one of the book’s strengths is its exciting and totally unexpected starting, an unpredictability that continues with great effect. It is the casualness with which the narrator announces “I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father” when he recounts his first meeting with the Captain, that automatically makes the reader sit up, and take stock. Thus starts a journey into Greeneland that gallops at full pace for a significant portion of the plot; from “Baxter Three” being whisked away from school and from the life he had always known, to a life of uncertainty and tension, where a knock on the door is treated with abject terror, and when secretive letters signed off with different names become the norm. The tension is handled well, with Greene’s typical ability to describe with meticulous detail, each little bit of neurosis that makes being human, well, human. Liza’s constant anxiety from the Captain’s nefarious dealings, as well as the constant disappearances of the Captain, very much adds to the mystery, thus keeping the reader perplexed, and eager to continue.
This is very much enhanced by the character of the Captain himself. His very presence raises so many questions that are still left unanswered by the end of the novel. In my opinion, the lack of an answer doesn’t even diminish any power that the book does have; it simply adds to the uncertainty of the entire novel. From the constantly changing identities, to the conflicting stories of the Captain’s life, to the unexplained absences, and the invariable visits from the police, to even the ambiguous promises of a better future cited in the Captain’s letters, there is not one aspect of the Captain that is fixed or known (except his love for Liza); we don’t even know his real name. Even a small issue, such as the game through which the Captain won Baxter is in doubt, with the Captain insisting that it was backgammon, whilst Baxter senior claims it was chess. This lack of certainty in any aspect of anyone’s lives consolidates the ever-present aura of mystery that the Captain radiates, and keeps the plot exciting and suspenseful.
In my opinion, though, it is Greene’s portrayal of love that is his greatest triumph here. The extent to which the Captain is willing to go (kidnapping children, long absences, possible stints in prison, moving abroad, entangling himself in political espionage, to name but a few) to let Liza have anything she wants (including a child!) is deeply moving. Liza’s awareness of this, and her gratitude as a result, is equally touching, and allows us to see another kind of love than that which is usually depicted in Literature: a love that thrives on self-sacrifice, and on making the other happy (much like Blake’s Clod). Liza’s final letter to the Captain is especially powerful, and made all the more so because the reader knows that the Captain, despite all of his absences and all of his risks, for her sake, will never get to hear such a wonderful admission of love from Liza herself. Their constant trials and tribulations make the strength of that confession even more startling, as their love is one that has gone through significant hardship. Consequently, Greene’s depiction of a Great Love characterised by self-sacrifice, secret yearning, and mutual selflessness makes this relationship one of the best in Greeneland literature, and it should definitely be celebrated as such.
The depth of the emotion between them is made all the more profound by Greene’s contrasting it with the detachment of the narrator. There is a certain coldness in Baxter’s reactions and interactions to everything that is slightly frightening, and slightly fascinating. He simultaneously manages to describe the events occurring around him, with other people’s reactions to these situations, without either analysing himself or his own reaction to it. Though some fear and longing is discernible, (especially when he recounts his experiences with the bullies at school, his first night with Liza, and his whimsical decision to take a plane to Valparaiso after he dreamt about it as a sort of paradise) this is hardly noticeable when compared to the palpable fears and worries of Liza, or to the Captain’s disbelief and anger when he discovers Baxter’s convenient white lies. His casual admittance to the fact that he felt he “owed nothing” to the Captain; his methodical and practical analysis of the situation after Liza’s death, especially in relation to the issue of money; and his initial willingness to continue lying to the Captain after arriving in Panama, makes Baxter an upsetting contrast to the more human Captain, and it also inevitably leads the reader to question the extent to which Baxter takes after his “Devil” father, who is purportedly as heartless as Baxter sometimes appears to be.
Despite the slightly dark aspects of this book, there are certain lighter moments that very much contribute to its virtues. This book, as are many of Greene’s books, is written in a gripping, yet easy-to-read style, that makes the story move along well, and eases any transitions in plot that may startle or confuse the reader. However, it is the occasional humour within The Captain and the Enemy that makes it so enjoyable. The time spent debating the silliness of the narrator’s name (“I never liked the name Victor“) adds a moment of comic relief in what is actually a very disturbing opening scene: the kidnapping of a boy from school. Equally, the “lessons” he was given by the Captain before being forced to attend school again are also very funny, with a special shout-out going to the Geography-lessons-cum-war-game-extraordinaire that Baxter experiences (“If you want to go from Germany to Spain, how would you do it?”…”No, no, you can’t walk through France, it’s under German occupation.”…” Liège is a safe house. Find Liège”). Even so, it is the letters from the Captain that are absolutely brilliant: long, winding, and very often off-topic, they are peppered with archaic and elaborate vocabulary (“glabrous” earns a notable mention) which has no relevance to the text whatsoever, but which is apparently used “for good sound effect”. These disparate elements all combine to make a novel with a surprising amount of laconic humour, despite the underlying sadness and anxiety beneath it.
On the other hand, one of the biggest flaws of The Captain and the Enemy is its failure to maintain the tension right to the end. Up to the point where Baxter admitted to the Captain that Liza was dead, the plot was moving at an incredibly fast pace. However, after that point, the plot just tailed off, with the Captain abruptly dying on a suicide mission, flying over the wrong part of Panama, and Baxter meeting a similar fate shortly, dying in an “accidental” plane crash to Chile. The two parts of the novel, namely Baxter’s childhood post-kidnap, and the intrigue in Panama with the spies and the militia, never seemed to combine well, and the plot thus lost steam at the end, leaving the reader deflated and slightly stunned. Greene managed to build up a level of mystery and uncertainty to such a high pitch that this sharp decline is rather disappointing. This is especially so because of the clumsy epilogue, which features Colonel Martinez and Quigly looking through Baxter’s “manuscript”, a stylistic device that considerately allows the reader to pretend that the entire story was real, as well as letting the reader know that Baxter doesn’t manage to outlive the Captain by more than a fortnight (if that), without having to resort to Baxter the Ghost recounting his last moments of life from Heaven. This device is, to me, ill-timed, and jars with the rest of the first person narrative; I feel that it not only adds precious little to the plot, it actually lessens it.
Nonetheless, what I found most troubling about the book was Greene’s inability to decide which genre he wanted to write in. Though it has often been argued that a book that defies traditional genres is a book that defies conventional logic, and is therefore groundbreaking work, I simply cannot agree with this. I feel that the mixing of genres in The Captain and The Enemy is simply a result of Greene’s indecision, rather than it being a bold experimentation in stylistic writing. It is a well know fact that Greene self-styled his publications into two types of novel: the novels of a “serious bent” (though he never used that particular term), which tended to include novels of a Catholic trend, such as The End of The Affair, and The Power and the Glory; and novels of “entertainment” (a term Greene did use), which described thrillers with a predilection towards suspense and espionage, such as The Stamboul Train, or England Made Me. It is true, there have been Greene novels that married the two beautifully (The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul automatically stand out), but The Captain and the Enemy does not fall into the “gold-standard” category. This novel therefore wants to be too many things to too many people all at once: it discusses arms-trading whilst the narrator ponders over the morality of his decisions, and it explores the inexplicable attachment between Liza and the Captain on the same page that it describes the unstable political situation in Panama. It is this indecision on the author’s part that weakens the novel’s strength, a novel that could have been so superior to what it currently is if Greene had simply decided to make it one of his “serious novels”. This choice would have been well-supported by the relationship described between Liza and the Captain, as it is wonderfully portrayed and has great emotional complexity.
So, what does this all mean? Well, though I cannot objectively call it a novel of the best technical skill, it is one which, for me, has a profound emotional appeal. The Captain and the Enemy does have its imperfections; yet, despite that, it has a curious emotional affect on me that makes it very special; I have to admit with blushing cheeks and shifty eyes that it is one of the very few novels that made me cry. There is something about Greene’s portrayal of Love here that is so unique, so different, and yet so beautiful, that this Love is one of the few Loves that I actually feel something for. It is this Love that motivates the best parts of the plot; it is also the ending of this Love through Liza’s death (and the Captain’s belated realisation of it) that heralds the unravelling of the plot at the end. Greene’s portrayal of Love is therefore, to me, central to this novel, and it is because of this Love that The Captain and The Enemy should be celebrated as a novel with great emotional depth, even if it does have little else.