The Human Factor by Graham Greene

28 September 2008

I keep meaning to read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I’ve had a difficult time finding it in the library of late. I picked up this other espionage-based work of his in its place, and I found it to be a more than acceptable (if rather less humourous) substitute.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Maurice Castle, to all outward appearances, leads a life that is so well-ordered that it might easily be described as boring. He takes the same train to work every morning, eats the same lunch in the same pub that he has frequented for years, arrives home around the same time each evening, drinks the same amount of whiskey (rather too much, but not enough to prevent him from functioning in the morning) before bed, and starts his next workday with the same routine. Even his work for British intelligence, monitoring the trickles of information that come from scattered agents and observation posts in southern Africa, is far from exciting. The only real colour in his life, so to speak, comes his wife Sarah and son Sam. Castle had met Sarah in South Africa almost a decade ago, when he was stationed there, and both of them had fled the country barely a step ahead of BOSS, the South African intelligence service — because Sarah is black, and their relationship had violated South Africa’s race laws. Castle had hoped that returning to England would mark the end of his and Sarah’s troubles, but his escape had come at a terrible price, and not all of his debts had been paid in full. So when Castle’s superiors suspect that someone in his department has been passing information to the Soviets, and the calm and orderly life that he has tried so hard to protect is in danger of crumbling around him, Maurice Castle takes the greatest risk of his life in a frantic, last-ditch effort to salvage his marriage, his family, and what little remains of his freedom.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is based on Greene’s experiences in British intelligence during World War II, as well as his travels to remote locations in British colonial outposts in Africa and elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s. In his introduction to the book, he states that had hoped to write a novel that depicted intelligence work as a normal and relatively mundane working world, one which deliberately contradicted the popular image of espionage as violent, glamourous, and full of action. His other purpose in writing The Human Factor was his interest in exploring the various contradictions present in international relations, which in the book take the form of British intelligence’s collaboration with the South African security services. The hypocrisy of officially denouncing apartheid while simultaneously working with the South Africans against Communist influence and black African nationalism is a constant theme. Castle’s struggle with the paradox of his work, as he is ordered to grit his teeth and work with the same South African intelligence officer who had threatened to imprison both him and Sarah, provides much of the driving force of the plot.

Greene builds the story slowly and methodically, ratcheting up the tension by careful and agonising degrees as Castle gradually realises the depth of the trap he has laid for himself. The climax culminates in a sickening plot twist that somehow manages to be both unexpected and oddly inevitable, and gives The Human Factor a frustrating but nonetheless realistic ending. Much like his earlier novel The Quiet American, Greene’s primary thematic interest lies in the effects of international politics on the lives of individuals — particularly those who are drawn into the game against their will. And even if one or two moments within the story push at the edges of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, The Human Factor does a very thorough job of stripping the intelligence community of its glamour and reducing it to the cold logic of its outcomes. It feels very plausible, which makes Maurice Castle’s fate all the more sobering to consider after the fact.

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