The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

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This 1943 novel is billed as one of Graham Greene’s ‘entertainments’.  The term suggests something light and frothy, much-needed escapism from the grind of wartime life.  On the contrary, under the cloak of the somewhat preposterous spy thriller it is a dark analysis of personal responsibility, loss, and the obligations that go with love.

Arthur Rowe is an isolated figure wracked with guilt after having carried out the mercy killing of his desperately ill wife for which he was dealt with leniently, committed to an asylum for a token period.  Now he lives in a rented room in London during the Blitz, not wanted for the war effort and passing his time mainly by rereading The Old Curiosity Shop.  While society has forgiven him, even if withdrawing in distaste, he himself, in a Greeneish Catholic way, feels guilty that he has escaped punishment.  The physical city is a metaphor for his inner anguish, patches of ordinary life in unaffected areas punctuated by devastation and dislocation.

Then one day his quietly pointless life is turned upside down.  The adventure begins so innocently: Arthur drops in on a charity fête for the ‘Mothers of Free Nations’ from a sense of nostalgia, and correctly guesses the stated weight of a cake, a lovely one made with real eggs.  There is though something odd about the way he wins it as the result of an instruction given by a fortune-teller.  The organisers argue that a latecomer had really won it and it looks like a case of mistaken identity based on a chance remark Arthur made that could have been a code.  But why was the cake destined for a particular person?  Stubbornly Arthur carries his cake away, only to be plunged into a nightmare world of intrigue while London is being pounded nightly by German bombs.

He gets the impression that the mysterious group at the fête is trying to kill him in order to retrieve the cake but he is afraid he is suffering from paranoia.  He is saved from what may have been a dose of poison in his tea only when the house he is living in is bombed.   Suddenly motivated to find out what is going on he decides to investigate, hiring a private detective and visiting the Mothers of Free Nations’ office.  There he meets a brother and sister, Austrian refugees Anna and Willi Hilfe, whose fates will become intertwined with his.

Events escalate and after Arthur goes to a séance held at the home of the fortune-teller and a man is murdered with his knife in the dark, he and Anna, for whom he has quickly developed strong feelings, are victims of an elaborate assassination attempt with a bomb in a hotel room that robs Arthur of much of his memory.  He finds himself a voluntary patient at a mysterious rest home in the country under the name of Digby with only patchy recollections of his past and no knowledge that he had murdered his wife.

With his amnesia, for the first time he finds a sense of peace and happiness: our memories can paralyse us, so we are happier when we live in the present.  Yet Arthur has a nagging feeling that he has lost as much as he has gained.  Not liking what is going on in the place, and not trusting the institution’s director, he escapes and goes back to London to tell the police about the séance murder, only to find that they want to question him about another mystery entirely, the disappearance of the private detective who was briefly working for him.  With the police now involved, the murky trail leads to a ‘39 Steps’ type of organisation and a microfilm that must not leave the country.

The plot is creaky and full of implausibilities but the novel is interesting on a number of levels, for what it says about London during the Blitz (if not as graphic as Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch), and also for the philosophical themes that Greene raises and which are not amenable to easy answers.  One of these is the nature of crime and punishment.  Was his mercy killing justified?  Was it actually mercy for Arthur rather than his wife, and therefore a selfish act?  These are questions still asked in the euthanasia debate.

But even if Arthur is guilty, what is an individual homicide, or four or five, when mass-murder is being carried out on a state-organised industrial scale?  One difference Greene gives is that whereas individual killing is carried out for reasons of hate, or love, anyway with an emotional component, the impersonal killing of large numbers is about cold-blooded profit and advancement.  Willi cheekily asks Arthur how many senior British politicians had shaken hands with Hitler, not a popular topic to raise in 1943.  You feel that Greene is speaking through Willi and would concur with von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is merely a continuation of politics by other means.

Another theme is love and trust, the nature of betrayal, and how pity (such as for a terminally-ill wife) drives out love.  Can you trust even those closest to you when motives are opaque?  To what extent is love built on lies?  The novel concludes with Arthur pretending to Anna that he has not regained his memory, thereby committing them both to a lifetime of pretence.  She does not know that he knows he is a murderer, neither does she realise that he is aware of her acquiescence in her brother’s espionage activities.  They will achieve happiness based on a lie, she underestimating his strength of character in her desire to protect him from the pain of his past, he concluding that suffering for the living is some form of atonement to the dead.  Rather than the expected upbeat romantic conclusion – one seen in Fritz Lang’s 1944 film adaptation – Greene’s ending is surprisingly pessimistic.

Over the course of the novel Arthur has travelled from a state of apathy, sitting out the war, feeling useless and unwanted, to someone acting vigorously to do his bit in the fight against Nazism, not for some abstract ideological reason but because it has impinged on him personally.  The Ministry of Fear is a slippery title, partly referring to the enemy spy ring, partly to the state of mind inculcated by the war.  But as Arthur comes to understand at the end, it encompasses everyone who loves, because to love is, in one way or another, to know fear.


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