The weird Greene place

 

© Penguin Books

 

Graham Greene famously divided his novels into two categories: those meant to be seen as works of serious literature and those meant to be seen as simple ‘entertainments’.

 

Therefore, when I recently started reading his 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear and the words ‘An entertainment’ greeted me on its title page, I made a few assumptions.  That I was about to read a linear narrative that travelled from A to B and then to C with a minimum of fuss.  That I’d encounter a tale containing action and adventure that didn’t severely stretch my braincells.  That there’d be some reasonable character development and a plot that perhaps sprung the odd surprise, but no major questions would be asked about the nature of life, the universe and everything.  That when I reached the end of it, I wouldn’t feel I’d been massively intellectually stimulated but I would feel I’d been, yes, entertained.

 

Thus, it was a surprise when I began The Ministry of Fear and found how different it was from what I’d expected – certainly during its first section, which accounts for half the book.

 

Set in London during the worst days of the Blitz, it focuses on a man called Arthur Rowe who can best be described as ‘walking wounded’.  This isn’t because of any war-related physical injury, but because of guilt about his dead wife.  When she was terminally ill and racked with pain, he poisoned her to end her suffering.

 

One day, the unhappy Rowe wanders into a fete where “the inevitable clergyman presided over a rather timid game of chance; an old lady in a print dress that came down to her ankles and floppy garden hat hovered officially, but with excitement, over a treasure-hunt…” and “there in a corner… was “a fortune-teller’s booth – unless it was an impromptu outside lavatory.”  Another feature is a mouth-wateringly big cake on offer to the person who can correctly guess its weight.  Meanwhile, all the money being raised by the fete is going to a wartime charity organisation called the Mothers of the Free Nations.

 

Rowe consults the fortune teller, who for some reason provides him with inside information about the cake: “You must give the weight as four pounds eight and a half ounces”.  Rowe duly repeats this outside, wins the cake, carries it away and clings onto it when the fete’s organisers come after him a few minutes later claiming there’s been a mistake.  Then that evening, back at his house, Rowe finds himself entertaining a strange man who’s “dark and dwarfish and twisted in his enormous shoulders with infantile paralysis”.  The hospitable Rowe offers a slice of his cake to this visitor, who crumbles it apart in his fingers whilst eating it.  A little later, he seems to have slipped something into Rowe’s tea – for Rowe recognizes the scent of the poison that he once administered to his wife.  Before anything else happens, a bomb drops out of the sky, demolishes Rowe’s house and brings the scene to an abrupt end.

 

Things become even stranger the next day.  Rowe has escaped the bombing without serious injury and, convinced that he’s entangled in a plot where the cake he unfairly won was being used to smuggle something, he pays a visit to the offices of the Mothers of the Free Nations.  There, he gets the address of Madame Bellairs, the supposed fortune-teller.  He arrives at her house and finds himself in the company of a group of eccentrics who are about to sit down for a séance.  Rowe takes part in the séance and believes he hears the voice of his dead wife.  This too comes to an abrupt end when one of the party is found murdered – with Rowe’s pocket-knife.

 

Now on the run for a murder he thinks he didn’t commit, Rowe meets – apparently accidentally – an elderly bookseller whose “teeth were in a shocking condition, black stumps like the remains of something destroyed by fire.”  The bookseller persuades Rowe to run an errand for him, which involves delivering a heavy case of books to a client who’s staying in a London hotel.  Rowe finds the hotel-room empty but, increasingly paranoid, believes that he’s been trapped there by unknown and unseen adversaries who’re lurking in the corridor.  And at this point the opening section of The Ministry of Fear reaches its climax.

 

All this is entertaining enough, but it doesn’t feel like the easy-on-the-brain entertainment promised by the title page.  There’s an odd, unsettling blend of humdrum, down-at-heels English melancholia, which calls to mind George Orwell’s 1930s novels like A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936); and, as the plot veers from one weird situation to the next with Rowe in ever-less control of things, the positively Kafkaesque.  I haven’t seen the film adaptation of the book directed by Fritz Lang a year after its publication, but visualising the bizarre scene between Rowe and the deformed man in Rowe’s soon-to-be-bombed house, with Greene’s oblique dialogue (“What do you want?”  “Peace.”  “Exactly.  So do we.”  “I don’t suppose I mean your kind of peace.”  “We can give you peace.  We are working for peace.”  “Who are we?”  “My friends and I…”), I ended up with something akin to a scene in a David Lynch movie.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Heightening the uneasy mood is the book’s London-Blitz setting.  The story takes place in a blasted, cratered, dusty city with a traumatised and weary populace.  It’s certainly not the noble and romanticised place evoked nowadays by British patriots when they hark back to their country’s ‘finest hour’.

 

And then…  The book drastically shifts gears.  The action jumps to a clinic in the English countryside housing patients with psychiatric disorders.  One of them is a man called Digby, suffering from amnesia and trying to figure out who he is and what events brought him there.  I don’t want to give away much more of the plot but even the dimmest reader will soon cotton on that Rowe and Digby are the same person.  While Digby begins to retrieve his memory – and the reader begins to piece together the jigsaw about what’d happened before and what’s happening now – the book becomes much more the straightforward thriller that’d been promised originally.  Some suspiciously familiar-looking characters start to appear among the clinic’s staff and it transpires that Rowe / Digby has indeed stumbled across a nefarious wartime plot and the clinic is a means of keeping him out of the way.

 

Even so, The Ministry of Fear never quite becomes conventional.  As Digby devotes himself to unravelling the mystery of his situation, the reader is painfully aware that there’s much of his memory that he shouldn’t want to have back.  Indeed, while in his Rowe incarnation he was an emotional cripple, the Digby version of him is braver, bolder and more efficient precisely because he isn’t carrying the traumatising baggage of the past.  And, reading the book’s later pages, I found myself increasingly apprehensive of the moment when he would remember – or when one of the villains would remind him of – his wife’s mercy killing.

 

The Ministry of Fear is entertaining, then.  But it’s considerably more than the humble ‘entertainment’ that Graham Greene would have you believe.

 

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