Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement, p.1Graham Greene
GETTING TO KNOW THE GENERAL
Greene was born in 1904. On coming down from Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for four years as sub-editor on The Times. He established his reputation with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. In 1935 he made a journey across Liberia, described in Journey Without Maps, and on his return was appointed film critic of the Spectator. In 1926 he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there. As a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and in 1940 he became literary editor of the Spectator. The next year he undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel, The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.
As well as his many novels, Graham Greene wrote several collections of short stories, four travel books, six plays, three books of autobiography --A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape and A World of My Own (published posthumously)--two of biography and four books for children. He also contributed hundreds of essays, and film and book reviews, some of which appear in the collections Reflections and Mornings in the Dark. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed and The Third Man was written as a film treatment. Graham Greene was a member of the Order of Merit and a Companion of Honour. Graham Greene died in April 1991.
Getting to Know the General
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Epub ISBN: 9781409020226
Published by Vintage 2005
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Copyright © Graham Greene 1940
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First published in Great Britain by William Heinemann 1940
First published by Vintage in 2001
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To the Friends of my Friend,
in Nicaragua, El Salvador
About the Author
Part I 1976
Part II 1977
Part III 1978
Part IV 1979 and 1980
History of Vintage
In the winter of 1976 I was surprised and a little mystified to receive a telegram in Antibes from Panama signed by a certain Señor V – a name strange to me – telling me that I had been invited by General Omar Torrijos Herrera to visit Panama as his guest and that a ticket would be sent to me at the flight bureau of my choice.
To this day I don’t know what had been in the mind of the General when the invitation was dispatched, but I felt no hesitation in accepting. I had quite forgotten that General Torrijos who had so nearly involved John Sterling in a perilous enterprise, but I knew that Panama, more even than Spain, had persistently haunted my imagination. As a child I had watched a pageant play written by Stephen Phillips in which, on the big stage of Drury Lane, Drake was shown attacking a very realistic mule train as it passed by on the gold route from Panama City to Nombre de Dios and I knew much of Newbolt’s good-bad poem Drake’s Drum by heart.
Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand mile away,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay . . .
What did it matter that Newbolt’s poem was inaccurate and that it was in Portobelo Bay, a few miles distant from Nombre de Dios, that Drake’s body was sunk into the sea?
For a child the glamour of piracy lay around Panama in the story of how Sir Henry Morgan attacked and destroyed Panama City, and when I was older I had read of the disastrous Scottish settlement on the edge of the deep jungles of Darién, which remain to this day for the greater part pathless and unchanged.
A time was to come when in the city of David I noticed that a black security guard of General Torrijos had the name Drake pinned on his shirt.
For amusement I asked him, ‘Are you a descendant of Sir Francis Drake?’
‘Perhaps, ma’an,’ he replied with a wide grin of pleasure, and I recited part of Newbolt’s poem to him.
‘I’ve done it at last,’ I thought at that moment, ‘I really am here in Panama.’
I had by this time seen what little was left of the gold route, and soon I would be visiting Nombre de Dios, now only an Indian village with no access by road even for a mule, and I already felt oddly at home in this small remote country of my dreams, as I had never felt in any country of Latin America before. Another year, and it would seem quite natural for me to be travelling to Washington carrying a Panamanian diplomatic passport as an accredited member of the Panamanian delegation for the signing of the Canal Treaty with the United States. One of the great qualities of General Torrijos was his sense of humour.
After sending my reply I consulted my friend Bernard Diederich, whom I had known in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He was now the Time correspondent for Central America. In his reply he advised a certain caution towards Señor V, who was apparently one of the General’s counsellors, and he proposed to come from Mexico City where he now lived with his Haitian wife and his children to meet me in Panama.
I chose to fly from Amsterdam direct to Panama in order to avoid changing planes in the United States, where I used to have visa trouble, and I little thought how familiar I would become with the long route of over fifteen hours – Amsterdam to Panama City with three halts between.
For the first time in many years, since I had been over-saturated by air travel to Africa, Malaya and Vietnam, I felt again a certain sense of adventure. Why otherwise would I have made trivial notes in a diary from the moment I arrived in Amsterdam?
The city was well enough known to me from the period in 1946 when I would go there frequently in my role as a publisher to repurchase English paper which had been exported from England where it was rationed, paper which we badly needed to print our bestsellers – the Bible and the novels of a certain American lady called Mrs Parkinson Keyes whose books I found quite unreadable. I would pay my hotel bill in those d
Schiphol Airport is surely one of the most comfortable airports in the world. On the ground floor there seems to be a sofa for every passenger, and three competing diamond shops (one of them advertising itself in Japanese) add to the air of leisure and luxury. Thanks to General Torrijos I was travelling first class so that I had the use of the Van Gogh lounge with its deep armchairs and heavily laden buffet. Even several hours of waiting passed pleasantly in those surroundings, and by the time I got on the plane I felt unusually happy, especially as I prefer Bols to any other gin.
‘Young or old Bols?’ an air hostess asked me as soon as we had taken to the air.
‘Which is best?’
‘I don’t know, but my father – and he’s as old as you are – prefers the young.’
I tried both and I disagreed with her father. I stuck to the old Bols all the way to Panama.
The sense of excitement grew, and a sense of fun which I had never known when I flew out to the French war in Vietnam, to the Emergency in Malaya, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, a leper colony in the Congo. These had been serious journeys – this one was not. I thought of it as only a rather comic adventure, inspired by an invitation from a complete stronger which had come to me out of the blue.
Fear can be easily experienced, but fun is hard to come by in old age, so I already felt a sense of gratitude to General Omar Torrijos. His title in Panama, I learnt later, was Chief of the Revolution, and he was the real ruler of the country. The only privilege of the President, so far as I could make it out on that first voyage, was to have a reserved parking place for his car at the Hotel Panama.
The sense of fun, however, faded on arrival. Two polite strangers met me at the airport – the dubious Señor V, they told me, was for a day or two in New York, but his car was at my disposal. They took me to the Panama Hotel (the name, alas, is changed now to the Hilton) and left me in a bedroom sixty feet long (I paced it out). No Diederich was there to greet me and I felt very much alone as I had little Spanish with which to communicate. In Mexico nearly forty years before I had been able, after twenty Berlitz lessons, to manage the present tense, though the future and the past were beyond my powers, but now even the present tense was mostly forgotten. I was beginning to feel shy of the mysterious General who was my host and rather foolish in this enormous room.
I turned my watch back, and as it was only breakfast time in Panama and I had already lunched on the plane, I tried to sleep. Señor V’s chauffeur woke me – he didn’t speak a word of English and I asked him to come back at 2.30 Panama time, indicating the figures on my watch. Diederich, I had been informed at the airport, was due from Mexico at one. The chauffeur came promptly back at 2.30, but still there was no Diederich. I told the man to come back at ten the next day. I was feeling gloomy. All sense of adventure had gone and as for fun . . . I began to hate my enormous room.
At 3.30 I went downstairs and ordered what I thought was to be a rum punch under a slowly revolving fan, but there was no alcohol in it at all. On the Pacific side of Panama they are not accustomed to rum punches, and in any case I discovered later I had used the wrong term. Only the planter’s punch contained something stronger than a flavour. At four o’clock there was still no Diederich, and I tried in vain to sleep. Why had I left my home in Antibes and my friends and come to Panama where the hours moved so slowly, even though they no longer moved backwards?
Around five everything changed for the better. Diederich arrived. It was more than ten years since we had driven together along the frontier track (only maps called it an international road) between Papa Doc’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which I needed to know in order to finish my novel The Comedians. Together too we had visited the Haitian guerrillas lodged in the abandoned lunatic asylum lent them by the Dominican government.
The years had not changed him. We drank whisky and gossiped, and although he could shed no light on the reason behind the General’s invitation at least he could diminish the extent of my ignorance. Señor V, he told me, was an old Arias man and he didn’t trust him. When the two young colonels of the National Guard ended over half a century of Arias family rule by putting the President on a plane to Miami, Señor V had remained behind and even after the right-wing Colonel Martinez had been dispatched to the same ‘Valley of the Fallen’ he still survived. There were, of course, other survivors. Torrijos, it seemed, was not a man to make a clean sweep. He was not ideologically fettered. For example, there was one journalist whom it was well to treat with extreme caution as he was another Arias man. Diederich gave a clear physical description of the man, short and stout, with a false bonhomie who laughed without cause, so that I easily recognized him next day when sure enough he didn’t fail to turn up.
We turned to the political situation. ‘And the negotiations for the return of the Canal Zone? How are they going?’
‘Oh, they are dragging on as usual. The General’s getting impatient. For that matter so are the Americans in the Zone.’ The leading American agitator in the Zone, a policeman called Drummond, claimed that his car had been blown up by a bomb, and he was to lead a demonstration against any negotiation in three nights’ time.
The telephone rang. It was one of the two men who had met me at the airport. The voice told me that the General was planning to visit some place in the interior the next day. Would I like to go with him? I asked if I could bring my friend Diederich. The speaker obviously knew the name, and he sounded doubtful, as though he distrusted the Time correspondent. However, he said he would inquire. A few minutes later he rang back. The General had replied, ‘Señor Greene is our guest. He can bring whom he likes.’ A car would fetch us next morning at ten.
Next day there was a small misunderstanding. A driver came to the hotel promptly at ten and asked for Señor Greene. Diederich and I drove off with him. After about ten minutes I became (I don’t know why) suspicious of the route we were taking. I was right. It was the wrong car and I was the wrong Mr Greene. We had been, so it appeared, on the way to a new copper mine in the interior. Back to the hotel and the right car and the right chauffeur, very much the right chauffeur, for he became my guide, philosopher and friend and remains so to this hour. Professor José de Jesús Martínez, better known to all Panama as Chuchu, was sergeant in the General’s security guard. He was a poet and a linguist who spoke English, French, Italian and German as well as Spanish. But to us then he was only an unknown sergeant, driving us to a house in the suburbs where the General preferred to stay, rather than in his own home, partly perhaps for security reasons, with his great friend Rory González, the director of the copper mine, who many years ago had befriended the young Lieutenant Torrijos of the National Guard when he was on duty up-country.
It was a small insignificant suburban house, only made to look out of the ordinary by the number of men in camouflage uniforms clustered around the entrance and by a small cement pad at the rear in place of a garden, smaller than a tennis court, on which a helicopter could land. Admitted to the house, we passed a life-sized china dog and sat down to wait for our host. A budgerigar hopped in silence to and fro in a cage, seeming to measure out time like an ingenious Swiss clock.
Two men presently joined us. They wore dressing-gowns and underpants, one had bare feet and one was in bedroom slippers, and I was doubtful which to address as General. They were both men in their forties, but one was plump with a youthful and untroubled face which I felt would last a lifetime, the other was lean and good-looking with a forelock of hair which fell over his forehead and give-away eyes (he was the one with bare feet). At this encounter what the eye gave away was a sense of caution, even of suspicion, as though he felt that he might be encountering a new species in the human race. I decided correc
Through the next four years I got to know those eyes well; they came to express sometimes an almost manic humour, an affection, an inscrutable inward thought, and more than all other moods, a sense of doom, so that when the news of his death in a crashed plane came to me in France, with my bags packed for yet another flight to Panama – accident? bomb? – it was not so much a shock that I felt as a long-expected sadness for what had seemed to me over the years an inevitable end. I remember how I had once asked him what was his most recurring dream and without hesitation he had answered, ‘La muerte.’
For a while there was desultory conversation, translated by Chuchu, polite and guarded conversation through which somehow a few facts emerged – that he was, like myself, the son of a schoolmaster and that he had run away from home at seventeen and gone to a military academy in El Salvador. Perhaps he was painting a self-portrait to the stranger whom he had been rash enough to invite to his country – for what reason he may well have been wondering now himself – as a plain simple man of action, which was very far from the truth. With a sidelong look at me he attacked intellectuals. ‘Intellectuals,’ he remarked, ‘are like fine glass, crystal glass, which can be cracked by a sound. Panama is made of rock and earth.’
I won the first smile out of him when I said that he had probably only saved himself from being an intellectual by running away from school in time.
We passed on then to the subject of the Caribbean. He seemed to know that I had been to Cuba, Haiti, Martinique, St Kitts, Grenada, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica. Why, he asked, this interest?
It was, I said, in a way a family interest, and I told him the story of my grandfather and my great-uncle, how my grandfather was sent out at fifteen to join his brother in the management of the family sugar plantation in St Kitts, how his brother died a few months after his arrival of yellow fever at the age of nineteen and was said to have left thirteen children behind him.
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