If you want to know what happened recently in Iraq—and what’s going to happen this year in Afghanistan—read Greene’s most essential novel, from 1955. On the surface, it’s a political parable about the British Empire on the wane, a dangerously idealistic new American Empire on the move, and the Vietnam that shimmers between them in the 1950s. Deep down, it’s also a rendingly private story about three people in love, wavering between realism and romance.
The novel that established Greene as a major religious writer—enshrining the gospel of humanity, for those who don’t always believe—is set in Mexico in the 1930s, when the Church was being persecuted by the government. Typically, Greene’s sympathies are with a dissolute “whisky priest” who’s never so bad as he seems, with the lieutenant who’s pursuing him, and with all the dispossessed and impoverished in a landscape of oppression and faith on the run.
Greene’s most personal novel was called “one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time,” by William Faulkner, no less. Told, unusually for Greene, in the first person, it’s a characteristically raw, intimate and unsparing account of an adulterous affair in which—a typical Greene touch—God seems to play the cuckold, and the husband and husband’s rival end up living together as best friends.
Greene could be wickedly funny, and part of the power of his work comes from a sense of P.G. Wodehouse bumping into Kafka. This story of a mild-mannered English vacuum-cleaner salesman in louche, 1950s Havana who is somehow chosen to be an agent for British intelligence sets the scene for John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama and innumerable other bittersweet thrillers about innocents caught in larger designs. It also gets Cuba, even as it is today, to perfection.