Graham Greene was a close friend of Kim Philby, the most legendary among the 5 Soviet double-agents within British Intelligence popularly referred to as the “Cambridge Five”, having worked with and under him during his stay in MI6. Consequently, not only did he extensively fall back on his personal experiences while writing the Cold War espionage thriller The Human Factor, many even believe that the novel’s central protagonist Maurice Castle was based on Philby even if Greene categorically refuted that assumption. If one were to draw a line with Ian Fleming on one extreme and John Le Carre on the other, this would be closer to the latter end of the spectrum considering Greene’s preponderance for mood, moral complications and psychological build-up over action and thrills; however, given the sardonic humour, wry irony, tussle of faith with doubts, undercurrents of melancholia, bitter comedy of existence, and portrayal of mundaneness amidst the grimy world of cloak-and-dagger, that the tale was filled with, would place it on an end of its own. The brilliantly etched protagonist, Castle, is an ageing, disarmingly sharp, deeply guilt-plagued and rather unspectacular bureaucrat edging towards retirement. His prior field stint in the draconian apartheid-regime of South Africa led to 3 different developments in his life – marriage to a black African woman who he rescued from the ruthless clutches of BOSS, being professionally responsible for a large section of the African desk in MI6, and developing moral responsibility to provide assistance to Communist African rebels through Moscow. Meanwhile, upon being apprised of a leak within the British intelligence, the smug, cynical and dangerously amoral Doctor Percival, a close confidant of C, decides on extra-judicial measures to save their organization from public scandal, while Security Head Daintry, an intensely lonely career man, is deeply troubled by Percival’s moral turpitude and wishes to deal with the mole by following due processes. Greene’s ability to traverse difficult themes – racialism, moral quandary, existential dilemma, international politics – made this late-career work a tense, bleak and quietly troubling novel.
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Spy Novel/Political Thriller