The Third Man – Graham Greene

It was a cloudy afternoon in Heathrow, when I discovered Graham Greene. Or was it just the hazy fluorescent lights inside the terminal gave me the impression of a cloudy day? I was on my way back from Barcelona and was stuck in Heathrow for a few hours before my connecting flight back to the States. I remembered being dismayed by the scant choice of shops in the terminal where UA had ended up. Worst of all, there was not one decent bookstore, besides a tiny newsstand sporting a few popular magazines and some pulp fictions. I guess the entire world knows that Americans don’t read.

Heathrow was gargantuan and constantly under construction. The roundtrip on the airport shuttle (including waiting time) to the main terminal could take close to two hours. But I had nothing to do anyways and didn’t want to risk finding myself on an 8 hours transatlantic flight without a decent book. The horror!

So off I went and happily found myself back in the buzzing commercial world of the main terminal and had the choice of not just one, but three excellent bookstores in the maze of shopping concourse. It is a good thing that the rest of the world does seem to read.

Earlier that year, I finished reading Irving’s Widow for One Year, in which he raved about Graham Greene, a name illiterate little me had never heard till then. So when my eyes caught sight of the entire series of ordinary looking light green spines of Graham Greene, I stopped. They were very simple looking books indeed. Every volume was rather thin; each cover was nothing more than a black and white photograph. Black letters said”Graham Greene” in georgia font on top of each spine. Among all the unfamiliar titles, “Stamboul Train”, “The Heart of the Matter”, “Brighton Rock”, “The Power and Glory”, etc., I picked up “The End of the Affair”. It appealed to me because it fit my mood then. Yes, it fit the mood for that trip. I’ve always been a fast reader and I figured this little book probably wouldn’t last me even half way into the flight. But then I could get some sleep, I thought.

Amazingly, I was wrong. Greene was good at packing so much into so little of a book. Each sentence deserved re-read after re-read. They were like good wine that one had to savor each sip carefully in order to acquire all the flavors condensed in those simple innocent looking drops. His book wasn’t easy read despite its carefully structured plots, witty humor, and elegant sentences. I often imagined the author’s face as he wrote each story. In my mind, that somber face always had a cynical sneer clinging onto its tilted lips, and in its eyes, there was tired sadness so thick that forced me to put down the book from time to time in order to get air.

“The End of the Affair” was a depressing tale, but when reader has been pushed to the edge of despair and darkness, at the very end, Greene gave the reader a flicker of hope. Even though the hope had a heavy religious tint, even though I’m not religious and usually religion turns me off right away, but Greene’s religious philosophy touched me and made it acceptable and romantic, almost.

From then on, Greene became my author of choice on any ocean crossing flight. It was hard to justify reading Greene on land, though. There was too much distraction when I wasn’t confined to my little bubble thirty thousand feet above ground. To date, I’ve only managed to finish The Quiet American in the comfort of home. (The book is better than the film, in my opinion. Because Greene’s world is a lot less clear-cut black and white than the world of Hollywood.)

You could imagine how delighted I was when I found an audio book of Greene’s book, “The Third Man”. Very typical of his books, it only contained two cassettes. But how it had turned my last two days commute into such a luxurious ride in the wave of his silky words! The beauty of words!

“‘I was stunned to see those boy’s tears rolling down his thirty-five years old face.'”
“‘The silence is more than an absence.”
“He is a man of conflict, conflict between his Christian name and his three hundred years Dutch descent of a surname. Rollan looked at and commented on every woman passed by, and Martin swore off them insistently.”

(I’m reconstructing these from memory so they are probably a little off from his original words, but you get the idea.)
It was fun to learn how the four powers divided up post-war Vienna like they did in Shanghai. Greene’s sarcastic humor was at its best describing the international patrols communicating in the language of their enemy: the cautious British officer, the chivalrous American, the French who was always ready to be entertained, and the rigid and in-personable Russian all fumbling in the fog of broken german. I was amazed also that my history class back in China forgot to mention the evil imperialist powers didn’t just served up insulting occupations to proletarian nations like China. They did the same to their capitalist brothers like Austria, too.

I just started listening to the story a second time this morning. Good things must be savored.

Now I’m very curious about the movie. “The film in fact is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.” Greene said himself.

Movie Quotes From “The Third Man” (1949).
Featured Author: Graham Greene: With News and Reviews From the Archives of The New York Times.