The Honorary Consul

by Graham Greene

Hardcover, 1973

Call number




Simon and Schuster (1973), Edition: 2nd Edition, 315 pages


Although Paraguayan revolutionaries make the mistake of kidnapping the British Consul instead of the American Ambassador, they continue to threaten violence.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
There is much to admire here as Greene explores similar themes to those that he probed in the excellent The Power and the Glory. The episodic feel of that previous novel is replaced here by a tighter scenario, however on this occasion Greene fails to sustain the impetus in his story telling and
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loses his grip on the issues that interest him.

The story takes place in typical Greene land. This is Argentina, but not the busy cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires, but a provincial town where everybody knows everybody else and nothing much ever happens. The people that make up the tight knit community of the upper echelons of this society know that they are languishing in a backwater, most of them are deeply flawed and although they might have moments of insight and even bravery they are more likely to take the easy way out or succumb to the entropy surrounding them in any difficult situation.

Doctor Plarr finds plenty of patients within his community, but also works with the poor in the barrios. He is a philanderer who finds plenty of opportunities among his more wealthy patients, he lacks belief in himself and Greene hints there is something missing in his moral core. His father was a Paraguayan revolutionary who has been missing for some time and this is enough to place Dr Plarr within the radar of the Chief of Police. A group of Paraguayans badly bungle an attempted kidnap of the American Ambassador making off instead with Charley Fortnum the Honorary British Consul. Dr Plarr becomes involved when the Paraguayans ask him for medical help and this is further complicated by his affair with Charley's new young wife which puts him in a moral dilemma.

The kidnapping takes place in the first part of the novel and from then on the back story is told in a series of flashbacks. Greene introduces all the main players with some masterful characterisation filling in the locations and backdrops to his story. Greene is at his best here creating an all too believable world where his characters must paddle furiously at times to keep their heads above water and to maintain their contacts with the people who matter. Charley Fortnum is an alcoholic who runs a plantation when not on his rare official duty as Honorary Consul, he is newly married to Clara an ex whore, Doctor Saavedra is a successful novelist writing for the more popular end of the market, Humphries the poor Englishman struggling on a pension and Perez the chief of Police, these are all in orbit around Dr Plarr and will be caught up in the kidnapping. It transpires that The British and the Americans have little interest in securing Charley's release, to them he is a nobody, an embarassment and so it is left to Plarr and his disparate band of acquaintances to take action.

Dr Plarr finds himself holed up with the kidnappers and the emphasis of the story changes to the revolutionary group. They are led by Father Rivas a catholic and an ex-priest, they are not the most skilled of freedom fighters and it soon becomes apparent that they are way out of their depth, and so is Greene himself. he builds a suitable claustrophobic atmosphere around the group, but any tension within the situation is dispersed by a seemingly interminable debate about faith and Catholicism. Other themes that have been explored so well up to this point such as, love, statehood, morality, politics and machismo are all suddenly on the back burner and unfortunately so is the story.

In The Power and the Glory whiskey drinking featured strongly and it does again here, but it is not the priest who borders on alcoholism but his victim Charlie Fortnum, it would appear that Greene is looking over his shoulder and asking us to compare The Honorary Consul with his previous novel. Greene has Doctor Saavedra the successful novelist defending his non political stance saying:

"That is exactly my point, doctor of course I sympathise with you, but how can I make art out of a man shut up in a police station"

In The Power and the Glory one of the most powerful scenes was Greene's description of the whiskey priest's ordeal in a crowded police jail, and so it seems to me he is saying that he (Greene) can create art out of such a situation and is deliberately referring the reader back to his earlier novel. It is as though he wants to go back over the old ground, he wants to carry on his debate about Catholicism. He does this at the expense of his new novel.

There is plenty of excellent writing here and some sharply drawn characters, however it does not have the same impact as The Power and the Glory and Greene's attempts to bring that book back to our attention is to the detriment of this novel
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LibraryThing member kerns222
Greene picks from a menu of stereotypes: hard drinking ex-pat, cynical doctor, whore who marries, son of wealth who becomes a priest who becomes a guerrilla, and the fuddled British and no-nonsense American ambassadors. Greene gives life to the Brit, half-Brit, and the American, of course, but the
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restless natives are not worth a full backstory. Except for the Jesuit upper-class fighter whom Greene needs to debate religion and death for too many chapters. The whore gets the role of mirror for the expats--she never becomes a character on her own, and she has the best female role in the book (not counting the doctor's mother, I suppose I must add). The Latin American country gets nothing more than a dark Greene shadow—it could have been any place where expats have beached themselves.
A wonderfully-written, old whiteman novel, that died last century for most readers.
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LibraryThing member gcolvin
I have to admit to a particular weakness when it comes to Graham Greene's work - even when the work might be considered one of his lesser endeavors.

Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a doctor in a fairly remote outpost of Argentina, becomes indirectly caught up in a bungled political kidnapping. His fundamentally
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cynical nature accommodates tender feelings for some of the flawed but genuine characters with whom he comes in contact. He is less forgiving to those who stand on irrational and hypocritical religious and political scruples who think their beliefs justify any means.

Greene finds ways to introduce critiques of colonialism, religion, and political "isms" that mesh neatly with the plot. These excursions do not make this an "intellectual" novel nor do they detract from the pace and suspense of the story. They do add a rich and complementary dimension to this excellent book.
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LibraryThing member Torikton
The Honorary Consul, published 1973, is one of Greene’s later works and is all the better for being so. Though the story seems, at a glance, to bear all the hallmarks of one of Greene’s “entertainments” (South American revolutionaries, a botched kidnapping, police investigations, and
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political turmoil), The Honorary Consul actually proves to be one of Greene’s most mature and introspective novels.

The story follows Eduardo Plarr, a half-English, half-Paraguayan doctor living in the north of Argentina, as he is caught up in a plot to kidnap the visiting American Ambassador by some former schoolmates-turned-revolutionaries. Things fall apart when the revolutionaries inadvertently capture Charley Fortnum, the British Honorary Consul. Fortnum, an elderly alcoholic, was never much use to the Foreign Service, so they are prepared to let him die without doing anything to prevent it. Indeed, the only person who seems to try to do anything to get Fortnum released is Plarr, who is conflicted because of the affair he has been conducting with the Consul’s child-bride, the ex-prostitute Clara. Other characters include Father Leon Rivas (the tormented ex-priest who leads the kidnappers), Dr. Saavedra (the Argentinean novelist who offers himself up in Fortnum’s place in order to prove his machismo), and Colonel Perez (the “noble” policeman who pursues the kidnappers).

Sound confusing? Not in the capable hands of Graham Greene. Not only does Greene manage to make all this clear (and in less than 300 pages!), but he does so in a way that infuses it with equal measures of tired comedy and bleak inevitability.

Both the comedy and the inevitability spring from the novel’s fixation on love – The Honorary Consul is obsessed with the question of love. Dr. Plarr is a loveless man, a detached man with no intimate friends who conducts empty romantic affairs; an exile who feels neither love nor devotion to his homeland or his adopted country or the land of his father; a doctor who heals only because of his Hippocratic oath, not because he truly cares for the welfare of others. The other characters suffer from love too. Saavedra endures secret poverty because of his love for writing, Father Rivas cannot reconcile his love for the Church and his love for justice. Fortnum loves his young wife, but senses she doesn’t love him; Clara loves a man who is not her husband. Love, Greene seems to say to the reader, is a strange and inexplicable force, one which leads people to do strange and inexplicable things.

I will definitely re-read this one someday. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member charlie68
A pretty good read, thoughtful and deep. Probably not a book a hundred years from now people will still be reading. But still has relevance for the modern mind.
LibraryThing member nmele
A Graham Greene novel I had not yet read. I am sorry not to have read it sooner. Greene probes deeply the nature of love, faith, the call to action, and the nature of sexual desire. Great reading.
LibraryThing member stillatim
Gabriel Josipovici, in his 'Whatever Happened to Modernism?', slams Greene and most other post-war British writers; he says, I think, only Muriel Spark and someone else are top-rate. He bases this on his own, personal belief that the best writing is self-reflexive. Well, obviously he didn't read
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'The Honorary Consul.' Aside from being a great story - up there with my favorite Greenes, Heart of the Matter, Power and Glory, Quiet American, Our Man in Havana - this one's also full of questioning and self-doubt about the role of literature in the world, the kind of writing one should do if one is going to be a writer, the relation between literature, politics and religion, and so on. There's also plenty of room for autobiographical allusion: Greene seems to be asking himself whether he'd achieved anything, really, by his life's works.

Admittedly, it doesn't manage this by making any wild stylistic or formal experiments. It's just that the characters, aside from the 'innocently' by-standing main man, are: a novelist, a prostitute, an 'ex-'priest and his 'wife', a poet/revolutionary, and a bunch of really, really poor and oppressed villagers. And, as you'd expect from a serious Greene novel, they're all complex and interesting and both sympathetic and utterly repulsive- you know, like people. You could easily teach this to a high school student, asking her which is the best life? While also helping her to think about how hard it is to answer a question like that.

So it's all intellectually stimulating, and well written and that sort of thing. The only flaw is that towards the end it suddenly becomes a second rate Dostoevsky novel: all long, looping, repetitive, completely unbelievable dialogue about God, politics and life. I wouldn't mind this in general, but the novel's really twenty or thirty pages too long. That this is my only complaint is some pretty good evidence, though, that the thing's well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member randalrh
Typical Greene--those with talents squander them, those without talent muddle through, pseudo-innocents are caught up in crossfire, and a pervasive organized oppression is inescapable. Why do I like them so much? Moments of humanity and inspiration, I suppose.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Greene's characters are always so interesting, and here it's the same in this tale of intrigue and kidnapping in South America.
LibraryThing member brakketh
Thriller in places and compelling throughout, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Three men trapped in a political kidnapping gone wrong combined with a love triangle and religious conflicts. Criticism of American intervention in S. America embedded in the plot. Private weaknesses and official lies.
LibraryThing member Castlelass
“A voice announced the station and the news bulletin, and news of Charley Fortnum took first place. A British Consul – the speaker left out the qualifying and diminishing adjective [honorary] – had been kidnapped. There was no mention of the American Ambassador…. The omission lent Charley a
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certain importance. It made him sound worth kidnapping.”

Set in northern Argentina in the early 1970s, a group of rebels mistakenly kidnaps Honorary British Consul Charley Fortnum, mistaking him for the American Ambassador. They demand the release of political prisoners in return for his safety, not realizing that he is not important enough to give them much leverage. Protagonist Eduardo Plarr is a local doctor whose father is English, and mother is Argentinian. He grew up in Paraguay and attended school with one of the kidnappers, ex-priest León Rivas. Plarr is having an affair with Fortnum’s wife, a former prostitute. He has not heard from his father, believed to be a political prisoner, in many years.

The kidnappers end up together in a hut with Charley and the doctor. The reader is drawn along to find out what happens to Charley. It does not look good for him. The British government officials do not appear to be very concerned and do not want to succumb to extortion. Though Plarr claims to not love or care for anyone, he takes extreme actions out of compassion.

“Doctor Plarr thought: the desperadoes! That is what the papers would call them. A failed poet, an excommunicated priest, a pious woman, a man who weeps. For heaven’s sake let this comedy end in comedy. None of us are suited to tragedy.”

Primary themes include love, justice, and faith. As in many of Greene’s books, there is much discussion of religion. The story is full of irony. Despite being full of rather unlikeable people, this novel inspires deep thinking and, possibly, even hope.
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LibraryThing member JBarringer
A non-official British Consul who has been existing relatively unnoticed in a small town in Argentina is kidnapped accidentally by Paraguayan rebels who had intended to kidnap the American ambassador to Argentina. Doctor Eduardo Plarr, as a friend of the Honorary Consul, Charley, and also a friend
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to the rebels from before he left Paraguay, is torn between his past allegiances and his present connections. To make matters more complicate Plarr is also having an affair with the Consul’s young wife Clara, a former prostitute, who is now pregnant, perhaps with Plarr’s child.
While this novel was not as satisfying for me as many of his other books, this was still an enjoyable novel. This book continues to explore the theme of Catholicism, looking at the essence of Catholicism, whether marriage, rituals, etc., are vital to the religion, or whether when stripped of all these outward elements of the religion there is a core of belief which remains worthwhile.
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LibraryThing member FEBeyer
An atheist doctor? A former priest with wavering faith? An exotic, isolated setting with whiskey sodden British expats? Check all these. In “The Honorary Consul” the local characters are as vivid as the expat Brits, something not always the case with Greene. (Although, I think he did a good job
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in his African novels of not assuming to know what the African characters were thinking.) Two of the three Englishmen here aren’t really expats at all. Born in Paraguay to a British father and local mother, Doctor Plarr is our atheist. Born in Argentina to British parents, Charlie Fortnam is the honorary British consul in a small town on the Paraná river in Northeast Argentina. The only other Brit in town is Doctor Humphries, a grumpy teacher of literature whose background we are not sure of, but he was probably born in England. I found it true even in the early 21st century that Anglo-Argentinians held fast to a 'colonial era' English accent and customs, like five o’clock gin and tonics, not maintained among British descendants in my part of the world. So the idea of a locally born Englishman not quite fitting in that Greene introduces rings true.

The setting seems to be based on Formosa (I've got that wrong it was Corrientes a bit further south), capital of the oppressively hot Formosa province - a million miles away from the cosmopolitan capital Buenos Aires, where Doctor Plarr’s Paraguayan mother grows fat on dulce de leche. I don’t know how long Greene was in Argentina, the novel is dedicated to Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine writer he stayed with. He refers vaguely to the political troubles in Argentina in the early 70s, the period just before the return of Perón. (Quickly followed by his death, his wife taking over and the subsequent military dictatorship.) Over the Paraná river is Paraguay - under control of the American backed dictator, General Stroessner. In a muddle up Charlie gets kidnapped by Paraguayan rebels hoping for an exchange of prisoners; the American Ambassador was the real target. The British government isn’t eager to get involved, Charlie is a sixty year old ‘honorary’ consul and alcoholic - worse still he has recently married Clara, a young prostitute - not a becoming image at all. He lives by growing maté and importing cars and then selling them on - flaunting the diplomatic rights he doesn't actually have.

The intellectual conversations at Clara’s (former) brothel between Plarr and local writer Doctor Saavedra are amusing - and Saavedra comes off as a joke, a man obsessed with machismo - until we see that he lives in poverty and Plarr gives him grudging respect for devoting his life to literature. Greene’s idea of Argentine machismo is accurate in its knife fights, but also seems mixed up with the Mexican version which is more pervasive than the Argentine one.

The kidnappers are known to Plarr, who is involved because his British father is a political prisoner in Paraguay. Plarr lacks the faith and personal morality of the head kidnapper, his ex-classmate former priest Rivas, but is a doctor committed to the poor - he resembles Dr. Colin the atheist doctor treating lepers in Greene’s “A Burnt Out Case”. In both novels Greene seems to be debating with himself the merits of the man of faith and the practical man who tries to save lives rather than souls. The saving of souls is a much more tortuous business because it raises the possibility of personal damnation? The pace never drops off much in this book - it didn’t get bogged down in Catholic theology and moral debate (although there is certainly a sufficient amount of these). There is a fair deal of humour too. I was just in the right mood for this novel - so a subjective five stars.
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