Greene was also famous for his politics and their seemingly contradictory nature. He flirted briefly with communism while a student at Oxford and actually worked as a small-time German agent in the French-occupied area of Germany after WWI. He was in the British Secret Service in WWII, but publicly remained friends with his former boss, Kim Philby, after this most famous of British traitors fled to the Soviet Union. He always professed sympathy for the victim in society - particularly in the Third World - but somehow managed to admire the French in Indochina, Fidel Castro, and General Omar Torrijos, the late dictator of Panama.
I say this because the pretext for our meeting was political, not literary, and although I’ve been an avid reader of his novels over the years, I wanted to know more about Greene the political figure - specifically, his reaction to the U.S. invasion of Panama.
“I was disgusted,” Greene told me, simply and finally.
We were seated in his small, book-lined living room four stories above the roar of Antibes traffic. I had come a way to find out what Greene had to say now about the tiny country he had adopted out of love for Torrijos. Greene was so taken with the charismatic dictator and his struggle to free Panama from US domination that he had written a memoir called Getting To Know the General, published in 1984, three years after Torrijos died in a plane crash.
I was facing Greene across a simple wooden coffee table. He lived so modestly in this three-room apartment that it was easy to forget his enormous commercial success. The furniture was comfortable, modern and plain, lacking even a suggestion of luxury.
I asked if he had spoken with anyone in Panama on December 20, 1989, the day of the US invasion.
“Not that day” he replied. “But during the course of the invasion my great friend Chuchu rang me up several times and he’s managed to escape being killed anyway.” José de Jesús Martinez, better known as Chuchu, was Torrijos’s intimate friend and chief bodyguard and Greene’s tour guide during his visits to Panama from 1976 to 1983. Greene’s affection for him was enormous, and it wasn’t surprising that Chuchu’s safety was uppermost in his mind.
But Greene’s passion for Panama withered somewhat with the death of Torrijos. I wanted to know about his personal reaction to Manuel Noriega, gut all he would communicate was a general antipathy.
“I went and had drinks with him once on my first or second visit and took a dislike to him” As for the conversation, “I can’t remember in the least. He was completely,” Green paused, “uninteresting.”
“And there was something about him that I didn’t like.”
If his fervor for Panama had diminished, though, Greene’s anger at the United States and its Latin American policies still smoldered.
“ I thought it was disgusting,” he said of the US invasion. “ I mean, there seems to be a kind of hypocrisy in the White House, because they condemn Saddam for Kuwait, and what was Panama but a Kuwait?
“And then the horrifying way in which they continue to supply arms to the military in Salvador even after the murder of those six Jesuits and a woman and a child. And they’re hushing it up for all they’re worth. There are witnesses who seem to be kept waiting and never heard.”