Rereading Graham Greene’s THE HONORARY CONSUL
When I read the novel decades ago, I found it boring. I have just reread it and found it anything but boring – maybe because I’ve lived in Argentina meanwhile and recognize the conditions Greene describes or else because I pay more attention now to how male/female relationships are described.
The protagonist, Dr. Plarr (or Greene himself?), is afraid of love, even the pretend-love of a prostitute.
You need not pretend anything at all with me (he tells her). A man is not nearly so stupid as he seems to you. He knows he has come to get a pleasure and not to give it. …She wasn’t annoyed. He could tell that she was accustomed to this sadness after coition. He didn’t differ, even in that, from the other men she had known. And this void, he thought – is she right? Is it no more than the temporary tristitia most men feel when they leave a brothel behind? …”I would like you to be yourself,” he said.
Plarr himself takes pride in being a realist.
There were no sentimental relics in his apartment – not even a photograph. It was as bare and truthful –almost – as a police station cell. Even during his affairs with women he had always tried to avoid that phrase of the theatre, “I love you.” …if for once he had been aware of a sickness he could describe in no other terms, he would have unhesitatingly used the phrase “I love”, but he always had been able to attribute the emotion he felt to a quite different malady – to loneliness, pride, physical desire, or even a simple sense of curiosity.
Why was he so wary of love? Because it put him under obligation.
Love was a claim which he wouldn’t meet, a responsibility he would refuse to accept…Something was always asked in return: obedience, an apology, a kiss which one had no desire to give. Perhaps he had loved his father all the more because he had never used the word or asked for anything.
I ended up feeling sorry for Dr. Plarr. But is that the sentiment Greene wanted to evoke in his readers? Perhaps he thought there was something grand and heroic about Plarr renouncing love, whereas I see it as a kind of niggardliness, a refusal to receive love because one would have to give something in return. Not my kind of hero.