The Captain and the Enemy

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The Captain and the EnemyThe Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
Published: 1988
Length: 224 pages

This is the last novel Graham Greene wrote before his death in 1991. I’ve only read one of his others before, the audiobook of The End of the Affair narrated by Colin Firth, which was fantastic, and this is an incredibly different book.

The End of the Affair felt real. Flawed characters, and a plot that’s surprising but, on reflection, makes sense. This novel was absurd in comparison, and I spent the first half in a state of confusion. The novel opens with a young boy, Victor, at school being picked up by a man he’s never before met, the title’s Captain, after ‘being won’ in a game of backgammon. After the grim plot of the Affair, I was very worried for this kid’s well-being. In the first few pages, Greene manages to raise half a dozen questions that he spends the rest of the novel answering.

The first part of this story is written from the view of the child a decade later in his life. With the help of old journals he used to keep, he recounts his time with the Captain and his companion Liza, whose house Victor grew up in after being taken from school that day. It was a very strange and confused life as he adjusted to living with a shut-in whom he never really seemed to bond with at all. The Captain would drop in every now and then after mysterious periods away. Liza and Victor never knew his real name or occupation, but he would send them money to live on. In the second half of the book, Victor continues writing in his journal as he travels to Panama to visit the Captain and learn who he really is.

They are always saying God loves us. If that’s love I’d rather have a bit of kindness.

All of the characters in this are unlikable, their personalities are stilted, and their actions are at times incomprehensible, but the whole thing has a slight whimsy that makes it work. The way the characters interact often feels a bit like a Wes Anderson movie – emotionally monotone in a way that allows us to believe the ridiculous world in which they exist. Some of the characters in this seem desperate for affection and can’t bring themselves to acknowledge those feelings and some seem genuinely indifferent. It’s makes it a bit difficult to relate to any of them, but I was driven on out of curiosity. Those unanswered questions that were nagging from the opening of the novel managed to keep my interest right to the end.

I was thinking of this as a classic when I picked it up, and I was surprised to see the publication date as 1988. I think of Graham Greene as a writer from the 40s or 50s, but it looks like he has published works spanning from the late 20s to the early 90s, which is amazing. I guess the idea of what constitutes a classic changes from person to person. If a writer has work that is considered ‘classic’, is everything he or she wrote then considered a classic? I often think so, but then cases like this do confuse things somewhat. I’ll leave it off my Classics Club list for now, I think, even if it does have a Penguin Classics edition, but I might revisit.

I did really enjoy this. The plot is interesting, if a little unsatisfying, but his writing is fantastic. He handles Victor looking back through his journals very well. I think this is considered one of his lesser novels, which makes me excited to read on through his bibliography.

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