Monday, February 27, 2017

Graham Greene Revisited

From my attic: two books by Greene.
The Ministry of Fear (1943) and Stamboul Train (1932, also published as Orient Express) by Graham Greene were my reading for this weekend. I had not read anything by Greene in many years, and did not recall these novels at all. I think they appeal to me now because they depict such dark and confusing times, maybe like what's coming to us now.

The spider's web I photographed on a trail in Florida last week to me resembles the feeling of being trapped -- a feeling so vividly depicted in these thrillers. In Stamboul Train one sees the depths of the depression and post-World War I sadness, with its desperate victims. In The Ministry of Fear, it's the horrors of the London bombing raids and dangerous spy rings

Set in London during the World War II bombing raids, The Ministry of Fear presents an atmosphere that seems completely unreal. Confusion and destruction can engulf one's entire surroundings: sudden death from a bomb or maybe refuge in the depths of the Underground and threats from unknown foreign agents. It's a world without stability.

The novel's central character, a man, stumbles into a spy plot entirely by chance, just because he is attracted to consult an amateur fortune teller as he passes by a small fund-raising fair in a London square. She directs him to guess a particular weight to win a cake "made with real eggs" -- rare eggs said to have been donated from the rations of the people who sponsor the fund-raiser. Wartime food, wartime scarcity -- what better way to illustrate such hardships? When he wins the cake, in error of course, he is followed by someone from the spy ring. At a crucial moment in his interaction with the agent, his house is bombed and the contentious cake is destroyed. He flees, and from that moment he is completely involved and enmeshed in the spy plot, and his life taken over. The plot, involving how he finally emerges from the spider-web nightmare, is somewhat forced, but the suspense is total.

Stamboul Train begins as the famous Orient Express leaves Ostend on its way through Eastern Europe to Constantinople, as they call it in the novel. Several characters who of course could never normally know one another are drawn together because they are on this train. One, a Jew, is going on business: he is a merchant dealing in currants and raisins. Somehow everyone can immediately recognize that he's a Jew, and he is very conscious of this himself. In this respect -- remember, the novel was published in 1932, so the most virulent racism was just starting -- I find the novel and Greene's attitudes both dated and somewhat puzzling. Is he straightforwardly expressing antisemitism? Is he just reflecting the unconscious attitudes of his time? Or is there a difference? I could look up what others have written but I don't want to do it.

Other characters on the train are a Communist/Socialist activist who is returning to Belgrade for a political action, a woman newspaper reporter who recognizes him and tries to get a front-page story, a woman who has been the lover of the reporter, a young woman who expects to become a chorus girl in an English show in Constantinople, and a petty criminal who has just shot a man and is trying to escape. There's a dramatic clash with border police, as well as lots of interaction among the characters.

Finally, at the end, there's a brief wrap-up when the survivors get off the train in Istanbul. Although the Pera Palace Hotel is mentioned, none of the characters stay at this famous location, about which I read a whole book!

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