Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Ministry of Fear

Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear is considered by many to be one of the first examples of spy novels, for which the author would become famous.  My first encounters with Greene were the Quiet American and Travels with my Aunt, which initiated me in the writing style of repressed, unfulfilled situations that would nevertheless exude so much emotion that would amaze me (they still do).  I came across Ministry of Fear at a book auction  - this one was a beautiful leather-bound edition from the late 1940's.  I bought it based on my experience with Greene and because it was such a beautiful book.  Now I would have to read it as well and see whether it was worth the while...

The writing is still the same - the main character, Arthur Rowe, finds himself trapped between a cake that was not meant for him and a murder he did not commit - coming from a background of mercy killing only further complicates his situation.  The alternation between dialogue and third person narrative creates a distance from the depth of emotions that actually take place, and allows (my) imagination to fill in the gaps when the characters remain passive.

While he is trying to figure out what is happening, we follow Rowe through London during the Blitzkrieg and watch as he gets involved in more and more complex situations, while reminiscing his adolescence (at times the scenes reminded me of Hitchcock's "Spellbound", with Dali's beautiful dream sequences).  There is a lot of soul-searching and Greene makes several points to one's childhood and how this is in stark contrast with what we all go through in adulthood:
"none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending" vs. "he grew up - learned that adventure didn't follow the literary pattern, that there weren't always happy endings" a little further down in the novel

Rowe reaches a point when he cannot take it anymore - he is seriously considering killing himself but decides to at least postpone it when he can be of use to someone - I found it very interesting that even in the direst of conditions, people will cease to be selfish when they can provide companionship (even though Greene believes this not to be an English custom...):
"he was going to live... because he no longer felt that he was dragging round a valueless and ageing body"

We are also introduced to two notions that I spent a lot of time re-reading, to fully grasp their meaning:  
- the economics of terror: "the maximum of terror for the minimum time directed against the fewest objects" ( how does that fit with recent examples of terrorism, I still have to figure out...)
- and the Ministry of Fear itself:  from the initial spread of fear and blackmail in Nazi Germany and copied in other governments, so that no one could depend on anyone (very nice thought, especially in present-day "reality" state of mind, where everyone will betray everyone for 15 minutes of fame) to a permanent fear of disappointing the woman Rowe loves and does not want to hurt: 
"They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much"

For me the Ministry of Fear proved once more the ability Greene has in providing great food for thought through an unusual story, told by common people ...

For the visual interpretation of this novel, I watched the film by the same name directed by Fritz Lang (Metropolis) starring Ray Millard (Dial M for murder).  As an old movie aficionado, I was expecting a very good "film noir" interpretation of the book.  The beginning was very promising, but alas that was to be only.  The rest proved to be a very simplified, succinct version of the book, and was rather disappointing...

Also read for the Graham Greene 2012 Challenge


  1. I hadn't heard much about this Greene title - thanks for giving us such a great review! I added a link to this review on the main challenge page. Watch in the next couple of weeks for a June Greene read-along announcement. :)




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