The Human Factor
by Graham Greene
Simon & Schuster
Rating – 5/10
Summary – Greene descends into doom and gloom in this novel about espionage among civil servants in London. The novel is well written and raises questions about the clash between personal convictions and political compromises. However, the characters are all miserable and I was glad to come to the end.
Review – Since the 1960s, it has become a truism that “the personal is political.” Graham Greene explores this idea in the novel The Human Factor. The plot concerns Castle, a career civil servant who was posted to South Africa and fell in love with a black African woman – Sarah – whom he subsequently married. After moving back to the U.K., Castle becomes convinced that the United Kingdom’s government is ignoring the horrors of South Africa’s apartheid policies. He also falls into a deep depression.
Davis is Castle’s colleague. He is a bachelor with a drinking problem and an unrequited love for Cynthia, another co-worker. Davis is also hit by ennui, and longs to be posted to Mozambique, so that he can begin a new life free of the old bonds.
It emerges that there is a “leak” from Castle and Davis’ section. Someone is passing classified information along to the wrong parties. The authorities suspect Davis and begin investigating his activities. In the meantime, South Africa’s government sends a man named Muller – whom Castle knows and despises – to the U.K. Castle is obliged to help Muller and even to invite Muller to his home to dine with Castle and Sarah. The Human Factor centers on these three stories – 1) the attempt to find the source of the leak – and deal with the problem, 2) cooperation with the South Africans, and 3) Castle’s attempts to determine what to do about the first two issues.
Greene is an excellent novelist, but I found The Human Factor to be hard going. All of the characters are depressed. Also, though the plot develops and characters take action, Greene suggests that they are pushed along by the fates; there is little to suggest that the characters can seize the initiative and change their circumstances.
In short, The Human Factor is worth a look for Greene’s fans. The story is reasonably interesting and – at 243 pages – the book does not take a major investment of time. But potential readers should be aware that it is full of unmitigated misery.