[Written in Managua in 1991. Rumour has it this piece was published in Spanish translation in Gente, the weekly supplement of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, after I left Nicaragua. I was never able to confirm this.]
Graham Greene, who died on April 3 aged 86, was not only one of this century's pre-eminent novelists. He was also a committed and active opponent of repressive regimes around the world, and he maintained an enduring relationship with national liberation movements and progressive governments in Latin America and elsewhere.
I remember one morning, on a visit to San Francisco, picking up a copy of the daily Examiner. This must have been early in 1987. There was a story on Greene. It told of his visit to Nicaragua, where he was awarded the Ruben Darío Medal, the country's highest literary accolade.
In his acceptance speech, Greene expressed his shame at being a citizen of a country - Great Britain - which was supporting the U.S. campaign of war, diplomatic isolation, and economic embargo against Nicaragua.
Then he said something that made me catch my breath.
"I see Nicaragua not only as a small country fighting a bully in the north," he told his audience. "I see you more, even more, as being on the front line of trenches in a worldwide conflict. You are the first defenders in a war between civilization and barbarism. I am proud to be here, and I pray for your victory."
There it was - as black-and-white a statement as you could ask for. And why not? The reference, after all, was to a struggle that in its broad outlines was very much black-and-white. Good versus evil; freedom and independence against the forces of tyranny and oppression. All those unfashionable concepts!
We're trained, as "sophisticated analysts," to shrink away from such stark formulations. It means that sometimes we can hardly bring ourselves to recognize when things are, fundamentally, that straightforward. Greene recognized it, and said it. Proudly, without any mealy-mouthed attempts at evasion or tame "balance." I loved him for it.
Over the course of his long life, Greene wrote often and ably about political themes. He was aided by his remarkable penchant for turning up in trouble-spots at key historical moments: attracted, he said, "by the feeling of exhilaration which a measure of danger brings to a visitor with a return ticket."
He was in Poland in 1948, at the time of the Communist coup there. In Vietnam in the early 1950s, he wrote a remarkably prescient novel, The Quiet American, which detailed the early U.S. role in propping up the Saigon regime. In the character of Pye, the monstrously naïve and insensitive American of the title, Greene found a brilliant metaphor for the moral corruption of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
Our Man In Havana (1958) mocked the role of western intelligence services in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Greene spent time in Haiti in the mid-1960s and emerged with a chilling novel, The Comedians, whose underlying theme is the state terror of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. One of his very finest works, The Honourary Consul (1973), dealt with the bungled kidnapping of a British official by a South American guerrilla movement. I remember one moment in that novel where a guerrilla leader is accused of being "amateurish." "Of course we're amateurs," the guerrilla responds soberly. "All the professionals are on the other side."
One of Greene's last books, Getting to Know the General, told of his relationship with Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos. He praised Torrijos as a true nationalist who sought to extricate Panama from 80 years of U.S. hegemony. Greene also had a few words to say, in that book, about his support for the Nicaraguan Revolution. Before 1979, he had contributed money to enable the Sandinista Front to buy bullets. Greene was no pacifist: he expressed his sincere hope that the bullets he paid for had found their way into a few of Somoza's troops.
"I think a writer ought to be a bit of grit in the state machine," Greene once said. "That applies to a democratic state machine, a socialist state machine, or a communist state machine." His outspoken political views were one reason (along with his Catholicism, and his reputation for being "too popular") that he was passed over, year after year, for the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature. But when he died, few authors in any language could claim so passionate and devoted a following.
The "victory" for which Greene prayed in his speech in Nicaragua turned out to be an ambiguous one. The Sandinistas militarily defeated the contra proxy forces, but they fell from power in 1990, largely owing to the bloodshed and economic ruin caused by the U.S. war and economic siege. But such ambiguities wouldn't, in themselves, have fazed Greene. He made ambiguity the foundation of much of his greatest fiction. It is there in the character of the anti-hero priest in his early masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. The elusive relationship between "real life" and miraculous intervention forms a sub-text of The End of the Affair (1951), one of the most mysterious and heartbreaking love stories ever written.
And ambiguity was present in Greene's own life. He was a Catholic convert who embroiled himself in almost constant controversy over religious issues. His novels' characters were semi-autobiographical creatures, torn by doubt and disbelief, but attaining humanity and nobility almost despite themselves.
Freedom has lost a friend, and the literary world a giant.
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.