Graham Greene

Sunday, January 6, 2002

To research her new book, "Traveling on the Edge: Journeys in the Footsteps of Graham Greene" (St. Martin's Press), Julia Llewellyn Smith followed the ghost of the controversial writer from Haiti to Sierra Leone to Argentina. David Wallis recently spoke to Llewellen Smith by phone from her home in London.

Q Suggest a Greene reading list for fellow travelers.

ATake the book for the place. If you are going to Mexico, read "The Power and the Glory," a fantastic novel about Chiapas. He also wrote "The Lawless Roads," a straight travel book about Mexico. It may be the most unpleasant travel book ever written. He wrote it in the 1930s. Even today, if you mention it to an inhabitant of Chiapas, they will tell you how they threw it across the room in disgust. The word Greene uses to describe everything is "hideous." Every page is just full of venom and bile.

What attracted you to a man who loved, as you wrote, "to visit brothels, to take drugs, to hurt and manipulate not just his readers but the people around him?"

You have to separate the author from the work. I don't think I would like Graham Greene at all if I met him . . . He was manipulative. He was selfish. He was definitely misogynistic. His women characters are appallingly portrayed. But it was his quality of writing that I liked, and his ability to convey the atmosphere of these extraordinary places.

Danger thrilled Greene, who as a kid played Russian roulette and as an adult gravitated toward countries in conflict. Did you find yourself in dangerous situations?

I did, especially in Sierra Leone -- which, when I visited, according to the U.N., was officially the most dangerous country on earth . . . [My photographer and I] found ourselves in a lot of very unpleasant situations at checkpoints when drunken soldiers, Nigerian soldiers who had been drinking all night or [were] high on drugs, would stop you and start searching the car. There was the sense that it could turn nasty at any minute.

How did surviving those checkpoints affect you?

I think once you've been through situations, you appreciate life much more and live it more intensely. I know that sounds a cliche, but it's true. When your day is [filled with] tension and danger, at night you get drunk and laugh a lot more. You don't suffer from the petty little anxieties which afflict you in your everyday life in a city. You don't worry about why your dry-cleaning was late.

Would Greene head to Afghanistan if he were alive today?

I think he would be more interested in countries that are going to feel the repercussions of what's going on there. I think he would be very interested in Sudan, where a lot of extremists are going to hang out once they are chased out of Afghanistan. That was always his thing -- to get somewhere on the eve of the revolution or the civil war, pull up the atmosphere and then move on before the war actually kicked in.

Which country did you visit that changed the most since Greene wrote about it?

Sierra Leone, because when Green visited it was during the Second World War, when he was stationed there as a spy for the British government. Then it was a sleepy backwater . . . And today it's certainly one of the most terrible places on earth. Between one-quarter and one-third of the population has been displaced, an enormous amount of people have been killed, and worst of all they have this situation with mutilations. Everywhere you go you would see limbless people -- not just adults but children with their arms or legs cut off, because this was the rebel army's way of instilling fear.

And the country that changed the least?

Argentina. Greene described it in two novels, "The Honorary Consul" and "Travels With My Aunt," and he didn't like Buenos Aires. He thought it was a bourgeois, superficial town with people very unsure about their identity. It's the same today, and the economy is still in chaos, just as he described it.

Greene was a keen observer of expatriate behavior. What did you learn about ex-pats during the trips?

Greene [wrote] during the end of colonialism. The end of the French regime in Vietnam, for example, the end of the British regime in Sierra Leone. Today, instead of the colonial people who led cut-off lives on their verandas drinking gin and reading old copies of European newspapers, [you find] aid workers . . . They are more aware of local people, because of their jobs today, but at the same time, when they leave in the evenings and go back to their bars and houses, they still lead alcohol-fueled, scandal-fueled lives, because they are quite bored. I think Greene was great at conveying the boredom of ex-pat life.

Describe the most Greenesque scenario you found yourself in.

I had a pretty fantastic encounter in Buenos Aires with a woman named Muffy. She was Chicago-born and educated at boarding school in England. She married a Uruguayan prince when she was about 19. And she was now living with her lover -- a Romanian-born millionaire, a big businessman in Argentina who was called Eduardo Seferian. He knew Graham Greene and was very helpful. Muffy was a bit suspicious, checking to make sure that there was nothing suspicious about my dealings with Eduardo.

We got to know and quite like each other, and she took me out for lunches at hotels Greene frequented. She was quite cheap, and she always would say, "Oh my God, this is so expensive, I'm only going to have a green salad." Because she was paying, you felt that you could only have a green salad.

Anyway, during one conversation about why Eduardo wouldn't actually marry her, I suggested that this might be because he thought she was after his money. She [said], "I hardly think so, darling, I am a Rockefeller." This was a very Greenesque character.

What would Greene think of your book?

I think he would appreciate my sense of adventure and my willingness to be slightly critical of him.

During your exploration of Greene, did anything about him endear him to you?

There is nothing about Graham Greene I find endearing. I share his curiosity and his desire to pick at the scab of human existence to see what the nastier side of life can be all about.

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