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Getting to Know the General by Graham Greene

Getting to Know the General (original 1984; edition 1993)

by Graham Greene

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260243,918 (3.5)10
Title:Getting to Know the General
Authors:Graham Greene
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (1993), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:memoirs, Panama, Omar Torrijos, 1970s, Central America

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Getting to Know the General by Graham Greene (1984)


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This is an interesting book in which Graham Greene a famous novelist discovers the different roles that delineation of character plays in the world of fiction, where one is trying to create an emotional response in the reader, and the world of history, where one should use the character to explain the actions of that person. Well worth reading. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Feb 5, 2014 |
In 1974, Graham Greene received an unexpected invitation from the Panamanian leader, General Omar Torrijos. Initially suspicious, he decided to accept the offer of a free ticket to Panama, and found himself intrigued by the country and charmed by its leader, possibly the world's only social democratic military dictator. He went on to make several further visits to Panama. His association with Torrijos continued until the General's death in a plane crash in 1981.

The Republic of Panama had been split off from Colombia in 1903 as a puppet state to protect US interests in the Panama Canal; since 1964 it had been trying to find an identity as an independent nation in its own right. Torrijos had come to power through a military coup, and was in the middle of delicate discussions with the US to renegotiate the canal treaty. He obviously thought it would help his cause if he could encourage distinguished writers like Greene and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to publish sympathetic articles about Panama and its enlightened ruler.

Greene never directly says that Torrijos was using him for his own ends, even when he finds himself pushed into acting as intermediary in hostage negotiations with terrorists, but in another context, not talking about Torrijos, he does comment that he has never objected to being 'used', if it is for a cause he believes in.

The most interesting character in the book (more fully rendered than Greene himself or Torrijos, the explicit subject) is the General's bodyguard, Sergeant Chuchu, who accompanies Greene on most of his travels. Chuchu is a former professor of Marxist philosophy and (when Marxism went out of fashion in Panama) of mathematics, who volunteered to train for the Panamanian special forces in middle age. Greene and Chuchu clearly got on very well indeed. However, the sergeant's background and complex lovelife make him almost a caricature of a Graham Greene character, so much so that when Greene tries to use him in a putative novel set in Panama he has to give up in frustration.

Worth reading, because Greene always is, and his view of Panama is often perceptive, despite his infatuation with the General. But it is sad to see Greene in what was practically his dotage (he was 70 when he first met Torrijos). There's a lot of grumpy-old-man stuff, and quite a bit of moaning if he has to go without alcohol for more than half a page or so. And of course, you can't help reflecting that a couple of years after this book appeared, Panama had descended into a morass of corruption and organised crime under Noriega, something that Greene entirely fails to foresee. Noriega himself gets only a brief mention ("I had a drink with a colonel Noriega..."). ( )
  thorold | Jan 21, 2011 |
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Coming out shortly after Graham Greene's 80th birthday, ''Getting to Know the General'' reassures us that the writer's dreams and hopes have not died. From a literary point of view, this book is perhaps not among his most memorable - he has conceded he found it difficult to write. But from a human point of view, it is compellingly compassionate.NY Times
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Alan Riding (Jul 12, 1984)
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I go, but I return: I would I were
The pilot of the darkness and the dream.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
To the Friends of my Friend,
Omar Torrijos,
in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama
First words
In August 1981 my bag was packed for my fifth visit to Panama when the news came to me over the telephone of the death of General Omar Torrijos Herrera, my friend and host.
I have never hesitated to be 'used' in a cause I believed in, even if my choice might be only for a lesser evil. (Epilogue, ch.4)
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Provides an account of the author's five-year personal involvement with Omar Torrijos, ruler of Panama from 1968-81 and Sergeant Chuchu, one of the few men in the National Guard whom the General trusted completely.

(summary from another edition)

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