Graham Greene column, Jan 07
Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (1943)
Famous now perhaps for a handful of works – Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene was a profound stylist and experimental writer. His minor novels are often things of delicate and strange beauty. The Ministry of Fear is such a text, an odd, enigmatic work about salvation, memory, guilt and loyalty set during the blitz. Greene’s protagonist Rowe is a conflicted, grief-stricken man racked with guilt for the killing of his wife in an act of mercy – in a powerful flashback we see them both tacitly acknowledging what he is doing. Rowe attempts to cocoon himself away from his past and from his present, living from day to day and rarely reaching out to anyone. The war is not his business, and he lives mechanically. The masterly opening chapter begins with Rowe visiting a rather forlorn wartime fête in a Bloomsbury square for old time’s sake and ends with him in a daze looking skywards from the basement of his freshly bombed out house. At the fête he wins a cake which, slowly, it becomes obvious contains something of great value to the Germans, and a series of strange events lead to him being sought in connection with another, more violent murder, before being admitted to a sinister nursing home having lost his memory.
Rowe’s numb existence is disrupted and he is finally roused to action, becoming at least involved in the world around him, if not able to affect things particularly. He repeatedly thinks of himself in a book, specifically a narrative of heroism, but events remain resolutely messy and unpleasant rather than resolving themselves properly; people die randomly, and truth and honour prove to be slippery concepts. The novel’s key atmosphere is menace, the unknown horror that lives below the surface of most people’s lives.
The blitz in this novel is something which Londoners live with, occasionally dying and grieving for those gone, but generally viewing events as something of an irritation which rearranges the road network and prevents them from getting home to central