Graham Greene was a prolific English writer who, in addition to writing over 25 novels, wrote movie treatments and screenplays. Probably his most famous adaptation was for the Orson Welles classic The Third Man, based on Greene’s own novella of the same name. The author conceived of The Tenth Man in the 1940s while working for MGM, but nothing happened with the draft for 40 years. When MGM sold the rights in 1983, the buyer allowed Greene to revise and publish the novel, giving us a new modern classic.
The story opens in a prison in occupied France during World War II, where 30 Frenchmen are being held by the Germans. In retaliation for the murder of a German officer in town, the guards decree that three men–or every tenth man–will be executed. They leave it up to the prisoners to determine which three will die, and the prisoners decide to draw lots. When a rich lawyer named Chavel draws one of the marked slips indicating he is to die, he becomes hysterical and offers his entire fortune to any man willing to take his place. Among the other unfortunate men who are doomed to die, only Chavel falls apart. In a way, the other prisoners feel sorry for him for being so soft. “. . .they watched him with a kind of shocked pity. He was the only rich man among them and this was a unique situation. They had no means of comparison and assumed that this was a characteristic of his class, just as the traveller stepping off a liner at a foreign port for luncheon sums up a nation’s character forever in the wily businessman who happens to share the table with him.”
To Chavel’s shock, a prisoner called Janvier takes him up on his offer. He agrees to die in Chavel’s place if Chavel will draw up documents making the transfer of property legal and help him write a will leaving the fortune to his (Janvier’s) family. The other prisoners try to talk Janvier out of it, and even Chavel regrets his actions during the night and attempts to back out, but Janvier is determined. The poor man dies, and the rich man sells his fortune to survive.
In the Part II of the novel, Chavel–destitute, ashamed, and suicidal–returns to his hometown under an assumed name and visits his home one more time. He finds Janvier’s sister Thérèse bitter toward her brother and full of hatred for the man she considers his murderer. She takes no joy in her “inheritance;” the house is falling into disrepair and she makes use of only a few rooms of the grand property. Chavel (now calling himself “Charlot”) observes, “It was an exaggeration even to regard them as legal lodgers. They were more like gypsies who had found the house empty and now lived in a few rooms, cultivated a corner of the garden well away from the road, and were careful to make no smoke by which they could be detected.”
Thérèse hires Charlot to stay on with her to help with chores but to primarily keep an eye out for “Chavel,” whom she believes he can identify. Just when Charlot/Chavel is ready to give up the pretense, a surprise visitor turns the story on its head and sets the protagonist on the path to redemption.
The French prisoners had Chavel pegged as a charlatan–a rich man pulling one over on a poor man. The idea of such unforgivable cowardice as Chavel displayed in prison strikes me as such a very English theme. The Brits in WWII were known for having a stiff upper lip and “carrying on” in the face of adversity. This sad, poignant novel of cowardice and atonement is classically British.
Very different, and yet still so very British, is Our Man in Havana. Greene adapted this 1958 satire into a screenplay for a movie by the same name starring Alec Guinness. It’s a fine adaptation as it sticks pretty faithfully to the plot of the book but dials down the 1950s racism a touch–always a plus for the modern viewer! (And for the easily shocked, the movie also replaces a reference to “bird shit” with “bird droppings,” thank heavens!).
In pre-revolutionary Cuba, James Wormold makes his living selling vacuums with limited success and tries to save enough money to give his teenage daughter Milly the finer things in life. One might say Milly is precocious; I’d say she’s self-righteous and materialistic and kind of annoying, but as Wormold is a single father, you can see why he’d be so eager to please her (the movie softens Milly up a bit too). Also, he’s British, so saying no doesn’t come easy to him.
An agent for MI6 named Hawthorne approaches Wormold and wants to recruit him as an agent–the Secret Service’s man in Havana. His job would be to keep abreast of the secret political operations and dealings in Cuba and send reports back to London. He’d be paid a generous salary plus expenses. Oh and he’s supposed to recruit other agents that report up to him, kind of like a Ponzi scheme for espionage. At first Wormold wants nothing to do with Hawthorne, but then Milly starts asking for a horse and a country club membership, so he figures, what the heck, he’ll give it a shot. He proves inept at recruiting agents, so his friend Hasselbacher advises him to just make some shit up. Wormold sends London some names that he selects from the country club roster and pulls some random information from newspapers, which he embellishes. This works better than Wormold imagined, because now he’s collecting the salary for multiple agents and submitting expense reports for them, too. He starts to embrace the game a little too vigorously. “What was the good of playing a game with half a heart? At least let him give them something they would enjoy for their money, something to put on their files better than an economic report.” So he gives them something bigger, claiming there is a secret military installation being built in the mountains. He even includes some sketches that look suspiciously like vacuum cleaner parts. London thinks he’s on to something big, so they send him a secretary named Beatrice to help him coordinate his contacts.
Beatrice complicates the operation for Wormold, because he can’t let her know it’s all made up, and he’s developing a bit of a crush for her. Things really get messy, though, when one of Wormold’s “contacts” is killed in an “accident.” Uh-oh. Wormold didn’t see that coming. Now a man’s death is on him and he’s worried for the safety of his other fake agents, not to mention himself and Milly (and now Beatrice).
Our Man in Havana is a charming little satire that Greene considered one of his “entertainments,” which I guess means fluff. It does have some serious themes, though, including the questionability of nationalism. At one point, Beatrice opines, “I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations. . . I don’t think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?” British Intelligence takes a pretty good beating in this novel, not just in their foolishness of relying on reports from random local residents, but in the way they move to save their skins in the end. As Beatrice tells her bosses, “We don’t believe you any more when you say you want peace and justice and freedom. What kind of freedom? You want your careers.”
One thing about this novel really bothered me though, and I can’t let it go. . .the aforementioned racism. Trying to judge a 1950s novel by today’s standards is problematic, and I wouldn’t exactly call it pervasive in this case, but I was taken aback to read a racial slur in the first sentence of the first page. Also, Beatrice makes a comment at one point about women looking all the same when they are naked, “like the Japanese.” And a few more instances. If you can get past that, it’s an amusing little book.
To sum up:
The Tenth Man – 4 stars
Our Man in Havanna – 3 stars (deducted .5 for the racism). Honestly, you’d probably do just as well to watch the movie instead.