GRAHAM GREENE first met Panamanian General Omar Torrijos in 1976, and decided to write a novel based on him and his country. Greene was fascinated with Spanish Catholic culture, and with the sins that Western capitalism and imperialism have visited upon the Third World, and Panama was a microcosm of both. A strategic sliver of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific, Panama had been buffeted about for centuries by the Spanish, by its own larger Latin neighbors, by the French, and finally by the Americans.

Moreover, Panama had Torrijos. The mercurial dictator and his David-like battle against the American Goliath over the Panama Canal seemed to provide the perfect setting for a Greene-style exploration of the confusion between good and evil that proved so effective in books like The Quiet American and The Honorary Consul.

Through visits to Panama over the next five years, Greene developed a close relationship with Torrijos and kept a journal that he hoped to turn into a tale he tentatively titled "On the Way Back."

The visits, the journal, and the planning for the novel were a tonic that came as Greene found his writing and imagination going stale. "It was like a return back to life after a long sickness -- the malignant sickness of a writer's block," he writes. "I was coming to the end of The Human Factor, an abandoned novel which I had picked up again in desperation to escape just such a block. Five years had passed after the previous novel and I was beginning to feel already the menace of another long block when The Human Factor too would be gone and leave my mind empty. But with 'On the Way Back' everything seemed to be possible: my writing days, I thought, were not over after all."

But Greene had only just begun the book in 1981 when Torrijos died in a plane crash in the Panamanian jungle. An investigation attributed the crash to pilot error and bad weather, although some of Torrijos' associates believe that a bomb had been placed aboard the aircraft. Greene received word of the crash as he was packing for his fifth trip to Panama.

"At that moment," he writes, "the idea came to me to write a short personal memoir, based on the diaries which I had kept over the last five years, as a tribute to a man whom during that time I had grown to love. But as soon as I had written the first sentences after the title, Getting to Know the General, I realized that it was not only the General whom I had got to know over those five years. . . . it was this bizarre and beautiful little country, split in two by the Canal and the American Zone, a country which had become, thanks to the General, of great practical importance in the struggle for liberation taking place in Nicaragua and El Salvador."

Some of Greene's critics, and even fans, say his books are not "political" enough. For better or for worse, his novels often are considered too entertaining to be profound. But for this reader and fan, the moment when "On the Way Back" became Getting to Know the General was an unfortunate one. What could have been both good politics and good entertainment as fiction turns out to be a disappointment as real life.

Omar Torrijos was a compelling, unique man who combined the Latin American caudillo tradition of military dictatorship with a curious kind of humanism and humanity, a "dictator with heart," as he used to call himself. After seizing power from an aging politician of the traditionally corrupt oligarchy in 1968, Torrijos suspended political activity and installed himself as Panama's supreme leader. By Latin standards, his rule was benign and relatively progressive. He dedicated himself to negotiating the return from U.S. control of the Panama Canal and Canal Zone, and wrested the long-languishing treaty negotiations to a political victory through will power and clever diplomacy.

Torrijos' own ideology was murky. He considered both Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro his friends, and dabbled in leftist revolutions in neighboring Central American countries. Some thought him a typical Latin American military rightist, most put him on the left. Activists of both extremes in his own country disliked him, although most of his countrymen seemed genuinely to love him and his paternalistic style. Even his enemies thought him clever. He hoped, Torrijos said, to turn Panama back over to civilian control by 1984, but did not live to see the inauguration this fall of the country's first elected civilian leader since his own takeover.

Clearly, Greene cared for him, and passionately wanted to write what the book's subtitle calls "The Story of an Involvement." Yet Getting to Know the General is flat and meandering, with little convincing explanation of what Greene sees in or knows about the General or his country. In terms of getting to know Torrijos, there is no probing or insight into what made the man what he was, of what in fact he was beyond a nice guy with a vague vision of social democracy who did crazy and sometimes even lovable things. Most people who spent time with Torrijos, journalists included, well knew his penchant for greeting visitors in his dressing gown (once, in my case, it turned out to be Dr. Denton-type pajamas), his liking for hikes through the Panamanian bush, his distrust of politicans and premonitions about his own death.

At the same time, most people around Panama at the time also knew of the visits from Graham Greene, and their long conversations. Whatever they talked about, however, is not to be revealed here. One longs for the larger-than-life, complicated character that Greene could have made of a fictionalized Torrijos; for the sense of place and time, and even political meaning, that the Greene treatment could have evoked of Panama and Central America at a time when national pride and revolution were awakening.

Instead, Getting to Know the General seems less of a statement than a stream of sometimes unrelated and often pointless travel journal jottings by someone who fondly remembers the trip overall but has forgotten the meaning of particular days' entries. Those who want to be convinced, or even educated, about what Central America, Panama or even Torrijos are all about will find little meat on this bare-bones volume.

The best passages in the book are those about the process of creating characters and writing fiction, about "On the Way Back," before it was discarded in favor of a pale paean to the General.

Only one small bit of it is preserved here, but it is worth comparing to real life. In Getting to Know the General, Greene describes his arrival for his first meeting with Torrijos. "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."

Much later in the book, as Greene recounts his efforts back at home in France to begin the subsequently aborted novel, "On the Way Back," the scene is transformed. The fictional protagonist, a journalist named Marie-Claire, arrives at that same suburban house to interview the as yet unknown General.

"She found herself surrounded in the small courtyard of a white suburban villa with half-Indian faces. The men all carried revolvers on their belts and one had a walkie talkie which he kept pressed closely to his ear as though he were waiting with the intensity of a priest for one of his Indian gods to proclaim something. The men are as strange to me, she thought, as the Indians must have seemed to Columbus five centuries ago. The camouflage of their uniforms was like painted designs on naked skin."

Any of us hacks could have written the first version -- and many in fact did. It is the second, however, that makes one want to read more.