Review of Graham Greene’s ‘The Captain and the Enemy’….
First published in 1988, The Captain and the Enemy was one of Graham Greene’s last novels, dedicated to Yvonne Cloetta, his partner from 1966 until his death in 1991, it is a story of emotional discovery against a bleak backdrop which is unmistakably Greene’s territory.
The story begins with a young boy, Victor Baxter being taken from his boarding school by a mysterious stranger known only as “the Captain” who ‘won’ him from his father in a game of backgammon. Despite his youth the boy quickly warms to his new guardian and gradually begins to see him for who he really is, a conman. The Captain soon deposits the boy with Liza, a woman ‘well known’ to both the Captain and the boy’s real father known only as “the Devil”. Liza renames him “Jim” and the two are left to fend for themselves in a squalid flat whilst the Captain disappears for weeks and months at a time. Liza’s life is depressingly dull and dependent on the Captain turning up and sounding the door bell in the special agreed way which can only mean his arrival.
As the boy matures so his interest in the Captain and his relationship with Liza grows. His mother, long since dead and his father being little more than a passing acquaintance makes Liza his one source of ‘family’ and in turn she becomes ever more reliant on him, constantly in fear of the authorities catching up with her or the Captain.
Greene’s choice of family life is a fascinating one, far from being stereotypical it is a reflection on post-war hardships, broken families and a romance of sorts. Greene’s skill at observing human behaviour and loveless relationships comes to the fore once again, there lies at the heart of this novel a plainness which makes the story all the more memorable, it’s not what Liza and the Captain do, it’s what they don’t do.
Now a grown man, Jim is told Liza is in hospital following a bad accident whilst going to buy bread from the bakery, a chore he always carried out for her in the past. Whilst visiting her she tells him to destroy letters sent to her from the Captain whilst insisting he is not to be told of her troubles. Jim asks the question he has long wondered: “Does he love you?” Liza replies: “Oh love. They are always saying God loves us. If that’s love I’d rather have a bit of kindness”
Following her death Jim decides to seek the Captain out, having read his letters to Liza, Jim discovers the Captain is living in Panama and follows the Captain’s instructions to Liza in an earlier letter on how to visit him via Amsterdam. Aided by a cheque for £1500 intended for Liza he makes the long journey to Central America where he discovers a much different looking Captain. He lies about Liza’s health, from the outset he feels little emotion for her death despite being the only real family he has known: ‘I felt no more emotion than when I left her behind after my weekly visit to go to my bed-sitting room in Soho. If there was any emotion, it was the emotion of relief, a duty finished’.
When he finally meets the Captain he is equally emotionless, he wants to know the business the Captain is mixed up in and now we see Greene return to the farcical nature of espionage so cleverly portrayed in Our Man in Havana. What ensues is a black comedy of police versus spy with Jim being a willing pawn driven by his anger towards the Captain. Once again the Captain makes fleeting appearances until his eventual demise but not before Jim reads one more letter, this time to him from his errant Captain. No love is lost, he accuses Jim of betraying Liza and orders him to leave the country, like Jim’s regard towards Liza, the Captain’s work is done, his duty finished.
And so the Captain takes flight, quite literally, one final time. The battered small plane he was using to run arms to the guerillas in Nicaragua was, finally, Jim is told, used as a kamikaze bomb to kill the Nicaraguan president but in reality the Captain’s death was less heroic. He was betrayed and shot down before he could fulfill his mission. Jim is left to ponder his own future, he has no job or family in England and decides to stay in Central America, a decision which proves fatal.
Greene finishes the story in the manner he began it, cold, bitter and symptomatic of how life’s journey can rely so heavily on the deeds of others. Jim never stood a chance, he becomes a liar, emotionless, a mirror image of those who let him down. In the few scraps of happy memories between Jim and the Captain comes their enjoyment of watching King Kong in those early days. Jim is happy the Captain remembered when he wrote it in his letter, some small salvation from the hurt and spite. It is here that Greene cannot resist adding comedy to tragedy. As we learn of Jim’s death those responsible rack their brains over the meaning of King Kong as they search through their belongings. In typical espionage fashion they become hell bent on uncovering this cryptic signal whilst two men lay dead. Greene shows the absurdity of the so-called ‘great game’ in a couple of sentences, it smacks of the author’s way of showing the reader he still ‘had it’.
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