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Confidential Agent(1945)

In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Luis Denard (Charles Boyer), a former concert pianist and composer, travels to England as a confidential agent of the Republican government. His mission is to buy coal or to deny it to the Fascist rebels. On the ship, he meets bored rich girl Rose Cullen (Lauren Bacall), whose father, Lord Benditch (Holmes Herbert), heads the firm with which Denard will negotiate.

Confidential Agent(1945)


Once a lecturer in medieval French, now a confidential agent, D is a scarred stranger in a seemingly casual England, sent on a mission to buy coal at any price. Initially, this seems to be a matter of straightforward negotiation, but soon, implicated in murder, accused of possessing false documents and theft, held responsible for the death of a young woman, D becomes a hunted man, tormented by allegiances, doubts and the love of others.

In all respects nameless D. is an unlikely candidate forrepresenting any faction's interests, and Greene quickly scuttles thestereotype of accidental hero epitomized by Richard Hannay in Buchan'sThe Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). Whereas 37-year-old Scottish adventurer andengineer Hannay, having made his fortune in South Africa, returns to hishomeland as "the best bored man in the United Kingdom" (7), only tobe reenergized by the exploit of solving a nation-threatening mystery that is"'all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle'" (33),45-year-old D. arrives in England as the nearly destitute puppet of overseas"rebels" who, while mistrusting the former academician, haveenforced his complicity with their cause (17). Greene's protagonistgives every impression of being a psychological casualty of civil war who isstruggling to understand his part in a story that seems already to have beenscripted, though not one imaginable in Haggard and Doyle's generationor, for that matter, Buchan's. What exactly motivates or constrains his mission remains a puzzle throughout the novel. Although we learn thathe is bedeviled by memories of personal loss ("He had been six months ina military prison--his wife had been shot--that was a mistake, not anatrocity" [9]), nightmarish trauma ("[H]e was buried for fifty-sixhours in a cellar," after an air raid, "with a dead cat's furtouching his lips" (8), (216)), and others' suffering ("[H]eremembered his own [bombed and starving people], at this moment queueing upfor bread or trying to keep warm in unheated rooms" (31), (58)), anideologically driven partisan D. is not. In fact, the phrase"confidential agent" itself becomes almost meaningless, thoughGreene refers to it more than once (see 99, 113, 176), partly because D.fails to fulfill the condition of what Prince K--, Victor Haldin, and GeneralT--ironically assert about Kirylo Sidorovitch Razumov in Conrad's UnderWestern Eyes (1911)--namely, that he "'inspiresconfidence'" (35; see also 15, 36, 38-39, 156). (5) One infers thatfrom the Guernica-like ravages of war D. is suffering the crippling effectsof shell shock, now recognized as posttraumatic stress disorder, but the moreimportant point is that this anti-hero is cut off from any context that wouldauthenticate his individual identity or ensure his mission's success. IfBuchan's Hannay engages in intrigue in order to dispel ennui, a morecomplex syndrome manipulates Greene's main character.

Greene's embryonic idea for the story, as he confesses,involved only the frisson of a stand-off between two adversarial agents,thereby tapping into an established scenario of the genre, but he soonsubverts his contemporaneous audience's readiness to interpret theiropposition primarily in terms of ideology. True, "L." has alliedhimself with the Francoist or Nationalist camp, whereas D. serves theLoyalist insurgency, but more significant than political allegiances aretheir situational commonalities. On board the steamer, for example, the"other man" is said to differ from D. by only "the longerlength of his chain," and, like the aristocratic L., Greene'sprotagonist "once had some kind of title himself, years ago, before therepublic ... count, marquis ... D. had forgotten exactly what." All thatseparates them, discloses the text, is the anomaly of "different initialletters." Both men otherwise are literal ciphers orfunctionaries--"two confidential agents wanting the same thing"(6). Even their cultural values are not incongruent, as emerges during aguarded exchange at a hotel restaurant near Dover. After attempting a [poundssterling]2,000 bribe to deter D. from his mission, L. tries to ingratiatehimself by conceding, "We are both guilty," and adding: "Ifyou win, what sort of a world will it be for people like you? They'llnever trust you--you are a bourgeois--I don't suppose they even trustyou now. And you don't trust them" (28). Setting aside classdistinctions, the erstwhile aristocrat then suggests that theircountry's power structure will appreciate D.'s scholarly work onthe "Berne MS" of The Song of Roland as little as it did his owncollection of manuscripts and paintings in ordering their incineration. Theoverture goes astray, however, when L. equates the forfeiture of hisantiquities with D.'s wartime loss of his wife: "It was amazingthat he hadn't seen his mistake. He waited there for D.'sassent--the long nose and the too sensitive mouth, the tall thin dilettantebody. He hadn't the faintest conception of what it meant to love anotherhuman being" (29). As "the agent with scruples" whodisbelieves in God or any absolute moral order, (6) D. finds himselfembroiled in a world of multiple fictions wherein "There was no end tothe complicated work of half-trust and half-deceit" (82).

Like Ambler, a writer with whom he is frequently compared, Greenerecognized that in a world increasingly divided along political fault linesthe ordinary person may be called upon to act in isolation without the luxuryof validation by either a secular or a transcendent authority. This,basically, is what he means by "shadow of abandonment." Hepburn hastheorized that "spy narratives arise from a disequilibrium between theindividual and the regime within whose ideology the spy lives and from whichhe dissents" (8). Recruited, that is, into the business of clandestineobjectives, smuggled credentials, and feigned allegiances, the"confidential agent" becomes automatically an object of distrust tohis ideologically doctrinaire handlers merely because they have granted him alicense or latitude from which they themselves are excluded. The spy'scommissioned freedom to transgress established demarcations thus constitutesa study in moral integrity under circumstances where no supervening"law" can be invoked. (11) By charting his anti-hero's coursein this interstitial "'No Man's Land,'" Greene is akey figure in the espionage thriller's evolution over the last century.

(5.) Without referring to Under Western Eyes, David Lodge writesthat "The irony of [Greene's] title is clear: D. is a confidentialagent in whom no one has confidence, and who can have confidence in noone" (16). 041b061a72


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