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A Nightmare Journey with the Wrong Map
Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear

Graham Greene famously divided his fiction into novels and entertainments, and he rightly declared The Ministry of Fear an entertainment.

Written in 1943 and set in the bomb-pocked London of World War Two, it manages to present an engagingly fast, light plot whose initial enticement and final resolution entertain the reader without troubling him too much with the story’s admittedly dire setting.

Sure, Greene slips in a few of his usual bleak sketches of a world that is on the verge of revealing itself as meaningless, but it’s just enough to remind the reader that while he’s reading an entertainment, it’s still one written by a fine, intelligent novelist.

The main character, Arthur Rowe, is unusually interesting for a thriller: he has murdered his wife somewhere in his past (he’s still haunted by her absence and his act), and he is outraged to discover, as the novel begins, that somebody seems intent on murdering him. It’s “a form of impertinence,” he believes.

When he had first believed that someone intended to murder him, he had felt a sort of shocked indignation; the act of murder belonged to him like a personal characteristic, and not the inhabitants of the old peaceful places from which he was an exile…The one thing a murderer should be able to count himself safe from was murder—by one of these.

Rowe, these early pages lead us to believe, is the sort of brainy, lonely aesthete of questionable morals (and sanity) some of us find so strangely appealing. That he longs to recover the innocence of childhood—those years before his wife’s murder—also dovetails nicely with the nostalgic longings the novel’s original audience must have felt for that time before the bombs began to fall and the air raid sirens blared their warnings to go underground.

These days, novelists may wait years to set a novel in the middle of a real-life national crisis (think, for instance, of how long it took for someone to produce a novel about 9/11). But Greene wisely chose to set his novel in the world that he could see outside his window as he wrote. It has an immediacy and an urgency I don’t think it could have had, had he written it in, say, 1950.

While it’s an exceptionally literary thriller, it’s really cinema—and more precisely, Hitchcock’s thrillers—to which The Ministry of Fear draws most obvious comparison. In the novel’s first scene, Rowe wanders into a small fête and finds himself caught in the middle of an intrigue. Acting on an unsought tip from the fortuneteller, he correctly guesses the weight of a raffle cake, but the fête’s organizers try to force him to return the prize. They’re unsuccessful, but later that week a mysterious, misshapen stranger shows up and demands he return it. Rowe refuses, and the stranger is preparing to square off against Rowe (having failed to poison him) when a bomb falls and destroys the building in which Rowe is living.

Thus begins Rowe’s flight from unknown evildoers. He belongs, we soon learn, to the ‘wrong man’ camp that includes Roger Thornhill of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Richard Hennessy of Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps. The police suspect him of a murder that happened during a surreal séance, and the bad guys equally erroneously suspect him of knowing too much about their operations.

The world around Rowe is strangely dreamlike even prior to his visit to the fête. Seemingly solid things like buildings—whole neighborhoods of them—can disappear in a single night’s bombing. But once he is forced underground, surreal dream logic prevails. Greene writes (in the opening paragraph of a chapter aptly entitled “Between Sleeping and Waking”),

There are dreams which belong only partly to the unconscious; there are the dreams we remember on waking so vividly that we deliberately continue them, and so fall asleep again and wake and sleep and the dream goes on without interruption, with a thread of logic the pure dream doesn’t possess.

Rowe’s awareness of floating in this state akin to lucid dreaming doesn’t help him escape, any more than it helps the dreamer wake fully up. And his becoming disconnected from his own story line doesn’t always help the novel, either. “He felt directed, controlled, molded, by some agency with a surrealist imagination,” Greene tells us.

A floating protagonist can feel too much like an idle observer, like the reader herself, as the string of unexpected events gets longer and more improbable. (In fact, it’s the sort of easy, gag-driven plotting that David Selznick wanted Hitchcock to get past when the British director came to Hollywood and turned to bigger productions.)

Unfortunately, midway through the novel, Rowe loses his sense of identity altogether, and the novel becomes something new: the story of an amnesiac who must discover his true self before his sinister captors can silence him permanently.

It’s a fun, if somewhat standard jaunt (a mix of blackmail and stolen secrets) from here, but it’s decidedly lighter fare that may leave readers wishing they could have the lonely, possessed Rowe back.

Some of Greene’s entertainments have vaulted the author-imposed barrier into the loftier category of novel through sheer philosophical density (think, for instance, of Brighton Rock). The Ministry of Fear is not among them. It hints at bigger themes without chasing them to ground—memory being the most prominent one, along with the value of moral guilt relative to blank hedonism. (“One wouldn’t be happy, not knowing anything,” the amnesiac Rowe points out.)

As it stands, The Ministry of Fear is a thriller to be read for its literary intelligence, its pacing and its occasional glimpses of its author’s weightier skills. And that, surely, is enough for an entertainment.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted May 1, 2005





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