(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed) Graham Greene's passion for moral complexity and his stylistic aplomb were perfectly suited to the cat-and mouse game of the spy novel, a genre he practically invented and to which he periodically returned while fashioning one of the twentieth century's longest, most triumphant literary careers. Written late in his life, "The Human Factor" displays his gift for suspense at its most refined level, and his understanding of the physical and spiritual vulnerability of the individual at its deepest.
Maurice Castle is a bored paper-pushing spy whose department is undergoing a security check. This slight variation to routine is enough to send Castle - and the department - into a tailspin. Decades of guilt, loneliness and paranoia may be enough to destroy any one of the sad, resigned spies in the department.
Greene generates a tremendous amount of tension from his conflicted characters and their existential malaise. He deftly exposes the strong emotions even that even the most ostensibly staid and diffident among us are subject to, whilst at the same time penning a damning condemnation of powerful governments and their underlings.
Don't get me wrong - this isn't a thriller; the tension is based on emotion, not plotting. Despite this, The Human Factor does have a plot, but it's more of a stage for the dramas of his very human, very vulnerable characters.
Greene's prose is tight and without flare, but nevertheless still evocative and atmospheric when it needs to be - though regular readers will be unsurprised by the rainstorms that always seem to coincide with his climaxes.
An excellent book - both as a cold war spy novel, and a portrait of human ties and emotion.
Castle is an agent in MI6, and as the book opens, a leak has been discovered in his division. Suspicion falls on his partner, Davis, who seems to have a lot more money than an agent in his position should -- he bets,he drives a Jag -- and he's also a pretty heavy drinker. Castle is older, near retirement, and leads a pretty quiet life, seemingly beyond reproach. But mild-mannered Castle is the one with the secret life. It started during his time in South Africa -- his black, African wife Sarah, was smuggled out of the apartheid-ruled country by a communist agent; and Castle long ago decided that he owed a debt of gratitude to the communists and started providing them with information from British intelligence, thinking that in some way he is helping Sarah's people. However, when his bosses decided that Castle will be the one who will provide their South African counterparts with information about an American operation in Africa, and he is forced to work with the very man who had held him on breaking race relations laws in South Africa vis-a-vis his relationship with Sarah there, a chain of events occurs which unravels his quiet and ordered life in England with his family.
However, this book really is NOT a story about espionage or the cold-war intelligence game. Castle marches to his own inner sense of personal morality, as noted by his mother at one point, where she says:
"You always had an exaggerated sense of gratitude for the least kindness. It was a sort of insecurity ....You once gave away a good fountain pen to someone at school who had offered you a bun with a piece of chocolate inside."
It hit me while reading that this "sense of gratitude" is the key to understanding Maurice Castle -- and it offers an insight into the reasons behind Castle's actions. Loyalty, for Castle, begets loyalty, but the reader may make judgments based on his or her own understanding of patriotism or morality that misconstrue Castle's actions completely, so understanding Castle as a human being rather than as a spy or as a British citizen is key to understanding this story.
The Human Factor is truly an awesome novel, one of the best I've read this year. It starts out very slow, but the tension builds as the book progresses until you're so caught up in it that you can't look away. I'd definitely recommend it to people who enjoy British literature, and to those who enjoy reading about the grayness of human morality. It's also pretty decent as a novel of espionage if you don't want to get into the deeper aspects of the novel. Very highly recommended.
Greene had had an early influence on me - but reading Greene from this end of my allotted time is a very different experience. The realisation that he is dealing in my lifetime gives a sharpness, if not bitterness, and reflecting on Greene’s observations is a more personal undertaking than initially presumed. Time present is to be found in time past.
This is a spy story – in the way that King Lear is a story about retirement or Waiting for Godot a play about a missed appointment. The title is appropriate – if 007 is all action, and Smiley not really much deeper than your average detective, Castle, the central character here, and Davis, his co-worker in the Security Service are not only fleshed out and rounded physically, but psychologically believable. The guilts and gratitudes, the anxieties and loves Mr Greene weaves into their tale are not mere excuses for action, they are the subject of the story – The Human Factor.
Through a debt of honour Castle feels bound to reveal what amount to trivial secrets to the ideological enemies of his nation – enemies who acted with more humanity and goodwill than supposed allies and friends. No guilt arises from the treachery, if anything it is a re-affirmation of the love he feels for his wife (the root cause of the debt) and a genuine attempt to relieve the suffering of her ‘people’ under the vicious Apartheid system both the British and American governments are working with covertly (and not so covertly) in an attempt to stop the threat of Africa turning ‘red’.
What we get is the clash of an individual with systems – the resulting crushing of the human by the state and its apparatus is quite desolating. The world has turned upside down – the doctor seeks ways to kill, the policeman attempts to justify and excuse crime; the Catholic church is anything but catholic and even the guard dog fawns on strangers.
Accidents happen in this ‘we’re not totalitarian’ state – the wrong man is executed (how else can we prevent bad publicity) – much as in the ‘regrettable’ accident of the killing of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.
Fictional though Mr Greene’s world is, it is a fiction based on a mental reality – that of a security service more frightened of the enemy within than a real threat without: I can only compare it to the human immune system turning against the cells of its own body.
Relevant to all of us in the present climate of ‘wars’ against terror which produce far more shocking tortures and crimes against humanity on behalf of the good guys than the bad guys could dream up (or afford).
And is an individual whose life is saved by another thereby bound in gratitude to that other for the rest of the saved life? And former enemies, who put one’s life at risk in the past: should they be accepted later as allies? And should changing circumstances re-draw the boundaries of allegiance and loyalty?
I’ve been waffling on like this because I’m not good enough as a reviewer to talk about this book in any specific detail lest I give away its plot. And the book is very old-fashionedly a book of tight plot, a page-turner, a book hard to put down, even though you have to get up early the next morning. It’s all this, but much more besides.
While it would be fair to call ‘The Human Factor’ a non-thrilling thriller, that characterization is certainly not intended as a criticism. The conflict and intrigue in the story is cerebral rather than physical, which creates an appropriate canvass for compelling psychological profiles of Maurice and Sarah; indeed, Greene was a master at exploring the spiritual and emotional consequences of the actions taken by his protagonists (e.g., ‘The Heart of the Matter’, ‘The End of the Affair’, ‘The Quiet American’). This is not his best novel and some of the story line feels a little dated—for instance, a few significant events would not have occurred if the characters had cell phones. Nevertheless, it is still an effective and entertaining tale that any fan of the author will find to be quite satisfying.
Greene disperses his melancholia through his observation of the repetitive minutiae of life, and it is rare for any semblance of joy to erupt. This book was first published in 1978 at a time when the British Security Services were still reeling from the embarrassment of the exposure of Anthony Blunt's treachery, and their complicity in covering it up. Predictably it owes far more to the le Carre tradition than that of Ian Fleming, though some of the characters occasionally show a certain wistfulness at the lack of exciting gadgets.
Maurice Castle, an old hand in the Service, is seeking to coast to his retirement working alongside his young colleague Arthur Davis. Seven years previously Castle had been stationed in Pretoria where he had initially recruited as an agent, and then fallen in love with Sarah, a Bantu woman. At the height of the apartheid period this endangered both of them, and Castle had had to leave, having also made arrangements for Sarah's escape from the clutches of the terrifying Bureau of State Security (BOSS) led by Cornelius Muller. With the help of an underground network Sarah managed to escape too, and met Castle in Lorenco Marques (in Mozambique).
Seven years later they are married and living in Berkhamsted (Greene's birthplace) with Sarah's son Sam. Castle has become another commuter, cycling to the station then catching the same train every day into the capital and then reversing his journey in the evening with comforting (or stultifying regularity). Life seems placid until an apparent leak is traced to Castle's section, and both he and Davis find themselves being investigated by Daintry from the internal review division. Daintry is an essentially fair man, and both Castle and Davis find themselves getting on fairly well with him. They are less comfortable with the sinister Dr Percival, one of the more senior figures within the Servie, though they are not alone in this. Daintry finds himself equally ill at ease with Percival, whom he suspects of being over anxious to take drastic action to plug the leak before their American counterparts become aware of its existence.
I worry about what Greene's personal life must have been like as he never bestows anything approaching bliss, or even vague contentment, upon his characters. Castle seems to trudge between home and the office, with an occasionally foray to his favourite bookshop run by the lugubrious Mr Halliday, whose sun runs a less salubrious 'bookshop' across the road. Castle claims, and we have no reason to doubt him, that he is happy only when he is with Sarah and Sam, yet there is no outward sign that any of the three of them elicit any joy from the company of the others. Yet, despite this lack of outward emotion, Greene does stir the reader's empathy for Castle. He is clearly a good man, who acts for the beat in a far from ideal world. There is very little action, and none of the excitement of a James Bond story, but the plot does move quickly, and the reader is wholly sucked in to it.
One attribute that can also be guaranteed in Greene's work is plausibility. He may come down over heavily on the melancholic - he is, after all, one for whom I imagine the glass (or perhaps, more appropriately, the chalice) was at best half-empty, but his plots are grounded in the way people genuinely behave. Perhaps their uber-realism and fundamental lack of hope is why we find them so melancholic.
Some novelists find it difficult to end their novels, but Greene excelled himself here. Earlier this year I read Emily St John Mandel's excellent 'Last Night in Montreal', and felt moved to re-read the final two or three pages which reached out to the reader with an extraordinary power. Greene achieved something similar with the burst of sadness in the final paragraph of this book which, even against the context of a broadly melancholic novel, left me feeling I had been punched in the face, but perhaps in a good way!
To write this tense thriller Green drew on all his experience and knowledge from his time at MI6 during the Second World War. It is a bleak story, that is very cleverly written too, as he has managed to get across the mundaneness of the bureaucrat’s job in the service, whilst examining the larger question of loyalty to family or to country. I really liked the subtlety of the writing too. It doesn’t have the glamour and excitement of some spy fiction, but it does have the drama.
If you want Graham Greene's original, fresh and worthwhile take on the intelligence business, read "Our Man in Havana" and give "Human Factor" a miss.