The Human Factor – Graham Greene

As I noted below, I have not read a high percentage of the “100 Greatest Novels.” Having stumbled on a bunch of Everyman’s Library editions of some of said novels, I decided to purchase and begin reading more classic works of literature.

Not wanting to dive in too deep to start I picked an author on the list but a title that was not. I also picked a genre – espionage – that was easy to read. The result was The Human Factor by Graham Greene. I had only a few basic notions about Greene prior to reading him: he was in some way Catholic; he was seen as anti-America; and that he wrote about the Cold War from a Gray rather than black and white perspective (in the way of Len Deighton and John LeCare). This was not neccesarily a problem as I read fiction for the enjoyment not for its political or religious clarity.

The espionage in The Human Factor is from behind a desk; and it is done by old men far removed from the likes of James Bond. But what really lies behind the book is the question of loyalty. The main character is Maurice Castle, the head of the Africa station for a branch of British intelligence. The story centers around the way his life changes as the department seeks to plug a leak. On the surface Castle seems to have it all together – to live a normal life with his wife and son. But as the story developes we realize that Castle is not as simple a character as he seems and the pressures begin to unravel his carefully planned life. In trying to do good – and in trying to repay a good – Castle finds himself detraying those around him and being seperated from the one he loves the most.

Graham gets in digs at America and South Africa throughout and a general moral aquivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union is present as well. Graham seems distraught about Cold War Africa and views communist activity in the region as the better of two evils. But this does not detract much from the story. Graham gives the secondary characters just enough color and personality to make the story work while the focus reamins on Castle. Graham’sh writing is sparse and neat rather than languid or flowery and this helps the story stay focused and taunt. The story begins slowly but picks up pace and tension as we learn about Castle through the events around him and through his own thoughts and feelings. Graham slowly reveals the gulf between Castle’s outside actions and his internal conflictions. As the tension builds you wonder when the dam will break and the conflict will spill out into the open with serious consequences. There are no great mysteries to unravel so much as pressures to be releaved. Graham does add a few twists at the end, however, to keep you off guard and seeking answers.

All in all, The Human Factor is a skilfull and thoughful exploration of loyalty and secrecy. I found the book engageing and subtle. Graham succesffuly communicates the ambiguities and pressures involved in living a secret life of divided loyalties. I recommend it to anyone interested in a darker and grayer Cold War played out more in the mind and personalities of old men than in the jet set activities of young super agents.

Recommend: Yes

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).