In his autobiographical volume Ways of Escape (1980), Graham Greene observed that since the 1960’s his work has steadily moved from the tragic intensities of his “Catholic novels” (written between 1938 and 1961) toward what he called the “tragicomic region of La Mancha where I expect to stay.” In the works of this “late” phase of Greene’s career, theological issues were no longer so centrally focused as they had been in earlier novels such as The Power and the Glory (1940) and The Heart of the Matter (1948). Politics, particularly involving the revolutionary struggles of Third World nations, moved to center stage. In mode these novels were more realistic and less rigidly schematic than the theological thrillers of Greene’s middle years. Novels such as The Comedians (1966) and Travels with My Aunt (1969) involved a larger and more varied canvas, with comic characters in particular given more latitude. There was accordingly a certain allowance given to eccentricity, to farcical adventures, with a prevailing authorial tolerance of the bittersweet human spectacle. In short, notwithstanding Greene’s growing concern with political engagement, the world of these novels—and the narrative structures used to represent it—tended toward the diffuse, the inclusive, and the picaresque.
One of the insights suggested by The Captain and the Enemy, Greene’s twenty-sixth novel in a career spanning six decades, is that he may have moved beyond La Mancha after all. Although a few of its characters and themes are reminiscent of the novels of the 1960’s and 1970’s, The Captain and the Enemy exemplifies a new style in being terse and elliptical, its settings and its characterization unusually sketchy, and offering more than a few hints that it may be read as a sort of parable of human evil. In all these respects the novel resembles other works Greene has published in the 1980’s such as Doctor Fischer of Geneva: Or, the Bomb Party (1980), Monsignor Quixote (1982), and even The Tenth Man (published in 1985, though originally composed in the 1940’s). These relatively slender volumes have been seen by some critics as evidence of the diminished powers of a novelist in his middle eighties. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Greene has discovered a form that will more readily distill his vision of humanity.
In The Captain and the Enemy this vision is embodied in the juxtaposition of opposed worlds. Superficially these worlds may be associated with the two major settings in the novel, England and Panama. More fundamentally, Greene is positing two sets of opposed values: the pragmatic and realistic on one hand and the imaginative and romantic on the other. The novel opens in a public school obviously modeled on Berkhamsted, where Greene underwent an adolescent crisis about which he has written incisively in A Sort of Life (1971). The protagonist and narrator, Victor Baxter, is abducted from the school by a man identified as the Captain, who claims to have “won” the boy from his father in a game of backgammon. Soon the Captain has installed the twelve-year-old Victor, whom he has unaccountably renamed Jim, in a London basement flat, where he will spend most of the next ten years under the watchful eye of the Captain’s lady friend, Liza. Meanwhile, the Captain is involved in a series of mysterious schemes both in England and abroad, periodically reappearing before the boy and Liza in different guises to escape detection by the police. Eventually the Captain lands in Panama, where he believes he will make his fortune by smuggling arms to, among others, the rebel Sandinistas of nearby Nicaragua during the last days of the Somoza regime in the late 1970’s. His plan is to send for Liza and Jim to join him once he strikes it rich. Much of the novel consists in the boy’s waiting for the reappearance of the Captain or for news of his colorful adventures in the world of crime and intrigue. Otherwise Victor/Jim’s life is tedious. Moreover, Liza’s passive existence, as seen by Jim, epitomizes the drabness of ordinary life. He longs for escape from this life, just as he had welcomed escape from the school. To him the Captain represents a sort of gypsy ideal which engages and shapes his imagination:He was an adventurer, he belonged to that world of Valparaiso which I had dreamt about as a child, and like most boys I had responded, I suppose, to the attraction of mystery, uncertainty, the absence of monotony, the worst feature of family life.
The Captain’s activities are all the more romantic to Jim because they are never fully explained. The mystery, however, only further stimulates his curiosity, and the Captain remains for him “an eternal question-mark never to be answered, like the existence of God.” That this is more than a casual analogy is clear from the fact that the Captain’s antagonist at the outset is Jim’s real father, referred to throughout as “the Devil.” He it was who so willingly went along with Jim’s removal from the school and his home (Jim’s mother having died years before), and in years past he had been Liza’s lover, eventually forcing her to undergo an unwelcome and dangerous abortion. Further, “the Devil” tries repeatedly to undermine Jim’s confidence in the Captain, discrediting the latter’s adventures as no more than the fabrications of a con artist. The first embodiment of the “enemy” of the title, he plants the seed of doubt and distrust in Jim’s mind regarding his surrogate parents.
Despite its brevity, The Captain and the Enemy is more complex and playful than most other Greene novels in its...
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