Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Do you believe in the way the country is organized?

It's a BattlefieldIt's a Battlefield by Graham Greene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Do you believe in the way the country is organized?" asks the character Caroline Bury in It's a Battlefield. She is a woman who is connected, who "had chosen to exercise her passion for charity" in the territory of politics. The story follows Caroline Bury and others as they try to prevent a London bus driver named Jim Drover from hanging.

Graham Greene described the book as his 'first overtly political novel'. It was published in 1934, when Britain was experiencing the effects of the Great Depression. Although the story references unemployment and poverty, for example when the Assistant Commissioner considers that "the beggar did not beg because he would not work", it is not primarily concerned with them (check out Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier for this). Instead, Greene claimed its theme is 'the injustice of man's justice'.

The Assistant Commissioner, perhaps the story's primary character, questions a justice system which allowed a company director convicted of income tax fraud to repay his debt at "twelve shillings in the pound to save [him] from bankruptcy, to save him from a nervous breakdown." In comparison "men who stole a little jewellery from a rich man's house" might go to gaol for five years, because laws, he says, are made to protect property.

The book also conjures up the experiences of working class females in a matchbox factory. Greene uses the same phrases with which he had earlier written about life in prison, and I think the women come out worse. Certain prisoners "have certain privileges", "as many library books as they want", and "more butter with their bread", whereas the girls, from eight in the morning until six in the evening stood "between death and disfigurement, unemployment and the streets, between the cog-wheels and the shafting." They worked until they married, like Milly Drover, the condemned man's wife, who one assumes will have to return to the factory whatever happens to her husband. If his sentence is repealed she will face 18 years waiting for him. Would it not be better if he were to hang?

It all seems a bit bleak, apart from the character of Kay Rimmer, Milly's sister, who was determined to have a good time whilst seeking a husband. I particularly enjoyed the episode where Jules takes her away for a night. Greene very briskly gets the sex scene out of the way: "He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune."

The writing style in the first chapter reminded me a little of Mrs. Dalloway in the way in which it follows individual characters as they travel around London between work, home and leisure, exposing their thoughts, worries and hopes. Greene opens a new section to clearly demarcate the shift from one character to another, although I was occasionally confused by the much too similar names of Conrad, the condemned man's brother, and Conder, the journalist.

This is the first time I've read It's a Battlefield, although in my early 20s I used to devour Graham Greene books. What attracted me to the author then was the way in which he juxtaposes religion (Catholicism) and communism, and this book did not disappoint me. I re-read Stamboul Train last year and am now determined to tackle all his books again.

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