Reworking Graham Greene: Robert Stone’s „A Flag for Sunrise”

Graham Greene’s influence on the American writer Robert Stone (1937-2015) was always stated by reviewers as self-evident; it is a commonplace in English-language reviews of Stone’s novels. In his 2020 biography of Stone, Child of Light, Madison Smartt Bell dismisses these comparisons, insisting that the similarities between the two novelists were superficial – a matter of both Greene and Stone having Catholic backgrounds and both having “set politically edged stories in exotic locations”. The biographer seems to take his cue from Stone himself, who said in a 1982 interview: “There’s some superficial resemblances. Especially in A Flag for Sunrise, you have the idea of a priest staggering around drunk under a palm tree. The whiskey priest. But I think that’s all very superficial. I don’t think there are any stylistic influences.”

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Still, the resemblances go somewhat deeper that Stone allows here. Greene was a writer Stone kept returning to, both in his nonfiction (he reviewed Greene’s The Human Factor in 1978; he wrote about Greene’s ties to Cuba in a 1992 piece on Havana; he wrote an introduction to The Quiet American in 2004) and in his fiction. Stone’s last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, has a character rereading The Quiet American and another character thinking (with bitterness and sarcasm) about “God’s appalling mercy” – an echo of Greene’s Brighton Rock, in which a priest talks about “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”. Stone seems to have liked that phrase: he quoted it in a 1991 interview with Robert Solotaroff and he buried another echo of it (“appallingly stranger mercy”) in a piece of nonfiction (published after his death in The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction, edited by Madison Smartt Bell).

Nor is Stone’s prose so free of possible traces of Greene’s stylistic influence. British writer J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), who admitted having been influenced stylistically by Greene (despite working in a different genre and pursuing very different thematic interests), explained it once in these terms: “There’s something about Greene’s handling of solitary characters, externalizing the character’s mind in terms of the situation in which he finds himself, the particular landscape. He does this so brilliantly. He can have a solitary figure standing by a jetty in the Far East, looking at some sanpans, and he brings in a few things like the local police chief scratching his neck and so on, and within a paragraph one has a marvellous evocation of the psychology of the hero, and of what the hero and what the book is about.” What Ballard describes in other words is how Greene, through his ‘cutting’ between crisply selected details, balances the internal (character subjectivity, moral atmosphere) and the external (action and description), making one subtly imbue the other. Gabriel García Márquez once made a complementary point talking about what he owed to Greene: “Graham Greene taught me how to decipher the tropics, no less. To separate out the essential elements of a poetic synthesis from an environment that you know all too well is extremely difficult. It’s all so familiar you don’t know where to start and yet you have so much to say that you end by understanding nothing. That was my problem with the tropics. I’d read Christopher Columbus, Pigafetta and the other chroniclers of the Indies with great interest, appreciating their original vision. I’d also read Salgari and Conrad and the early twentieth century Latin American ‘tropicalists’ who saw everything through Modernist spectacles, and many others, but always found an enormous dichotomy between their versions and the real thing. Some of them fell into the trap of listing things and, paradoxically, the longer the list the more limited their vision seemed. Others, as we know, have succumbed to rhetorical excess. Graham Greene solved this literary problem in a very precise way – with a few disparate elements connected by an inner coherence both subtle and real. Using this method you can reduce the whole enigma of the tropics to the fragrance of a rotten guava.”

Here are the openings to three of Greene’s novels:

Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly towards them. One rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr. Tench went on across the plaza.

(The Power and the Glory, 1940)

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark-blue gym smocks engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked  his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.

(The Heart of the Matter, 1948)

The protagonist of the novel appears a moment later, introduced by Greene with a cinematic flourish. A minor character points him out (“Look down there, look at Scobie.”) to another, whereupon Greene makes one of his striking, self-consciously cinematic ‘cuts’: “A vulture flapped and shifted on the iron roof and Wilson looked at Scobie.”


After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street. A lot of old women in black trousers squatted on the landing: it was February and I suppose too hot for them in bed. One trishaw driver pedalled slowly by towards the riverfront and I could see lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes. There was no sign of Pyle anywhere in the long street.

(The Quiet American, 1955)

As J. G. Ballard has written: “Within the first paragraph of a Graham Greene novel one has an unmistakable feeling for the imaginative and psychological shape of what is to come.”

Now here is Robert Stone’s version of this, from his 1974 novel Dog Soldiers. We’re in Saigon – also the setting of Greene’s The Quiet American:

There was only one bench in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street, resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.

The other occupant of the bench was an American lady of middling age.

It was siesta hour and there was no one else in the park. The children who usually played soccer on the lawns were across the street, sleeping in the shade of their mothers’ street stalls. The Tu Do hustlers had withdrawn into the arcade of Eden Passage where they lounged sleepy-eyed, rousing themselves now and then to hiss after the passing of a sweating American. It was three o’clock and the sky was almost cloudless. The rain was late. There was no wind, and the palm crowns and poinciana blossoms of the park trees hung motionless.

There may be nothing comparable to the ‘cinematic’ bravura of Greene’s tracking shot from The Power of the Glory, following the vulture’s flight over the plaza and towards the sea, but the crisp close-ups are there, and so is the subtle merging of the internal and the external, as well as the attempt at the kind of poetic distillation (the tropics reduced to “the fragrance of a rotten guava”) that Márquez had celebrated in Greene.

Of course there are large differences between Stone and Greene. Stone was an American; Greene was British. Born in 1937, Stone was raised in difficult circumstances by a single mother who was believed to be mentally disturbed. Greene was born in 1904; as Stone himself has written in his brilliant introduction to The Quiet American, his family “was of the professional middle class, the backbone of the British Empire in its last years. If not a ruling class, it was certainly an administrative cadre and a self-conscious elite”. Stone has described The Quiet American as “one of the great novels of the anticolonial struggle and the Cold War”, and while it’s difficult to argue with the second part, the first part is somewhat imprecise: Greene is actually a late exponent of the British colonial novel – a colonial writer writing in an era in which the disintegrating old colonial order was being replaced by the United States’ newer style of imperialism. Like Greene, Stone came to write narratives of political turbulence (partly) set in tropical countries, informed by a Catholic background and a deep wariness of American imperial power. But Stone’s politics and his interest in religion were crucially shaped by the 1960s American counterculture – in scholar John A. McClure’s words, by “the commitment to liberating political struggle and the commitment to the kind of mystical quests undertaken by one wing of the drug culture” – and are consequently very different from Greene’s. In his later years, Greene would come to describe himself politically as “a humanist and a socialist”, citing Alexander Dubček, Salvador Allende and Che Guevara as inspirational figures, showing great optimism about Nicaragua and telling Martin Amis in 1984 that he had kept his “sympathy for the dream of communism”. Whereas Stone’s leftism was anti-communist and laced from the beginning with a feeling of political impotence, strengthened by the failure of the counterculture and given a metaphysical spin. From A Flag for Sunrise (1981) to Outerbridge Reach (1992), and on to the allusions sprinkled throughout his last novel, he would become ever more cynical about South American revolutionary movements. In his piece on Cuba in the 1990s, he is very scathing about what he sees as Greene’s revolutionary tourism. He also seems to have resented The Quiet American for the way in which it connects US imperial murderousness with a caricature of classic American Puritan values, which Greene treats with the consummate contempt of a man of the world. Shortly before his death, Stone talked again about his connection with Greene in words that sound more truthful than his earlier dismissal of their resemblances as “superficial”: “I don’t feel unconnected with Greene, but my connection with Greene is really one of hostility and rejection. […] I think he made claims to knowledge and to insight that he wasn’t properly entitled to.” This is somewhat obscure, but it seems to imply that Greene hadn’t quite earned the right to write as a definer of the depths of despair, poverty and loneliness to which he was atracted as literary subjects. With all the hostility, it is fair to say that Greene was a lasting reference point for Stone, who knew he was indebted to the British writer for having first defined some of his themes – not least the view of postwar America as an imperial power.

Set in a fictional Central American country called Tecan, A Flag for Sunrise is a Greene-type study of the committed and the uncommitted, a novel of dissolute, convictionless intellectuals, CIA schemers, superstitious police torturers, and priests of both the revolutionary and the whiskey varieties. More exactly, it is an American, post-Vietnam, post-counterculture, Reagan-era reworking of this kind of archetypal ‘Graham Greene novel’.

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As in other novels of his, Stone cross-cuts between several storylines which are bound to converge. (In this case they take several hundred pages to do so.) One of them involves a young and idealistic American nun, Sister Justin (member of a fictional order invented by Stone: the Devotionists), who is co-opted by a Tecanecan priest, Father Godoy, to help the upcoming revolution; among other things, she is to assist the landing of a shipment of guns. This storyline also involves Father Egan, the Canadian ‘whiskey priest’ who is supposed to be in charge of the Devotionist mission, and Lieutenant Campos, a sadistic officer in the Tecanecan Guardia Nacional. The novel’s opening scene, in which Campos torments Egan by showing him the body of a tourist girl he has killed (he keeps it in his fridge), forcing him to listen to his confession, then ordering him to get rid of the body, reads almost like a pastiche of Greene with the depravity dialled up several notches. (Greene himself had sometimes worked in the vicinity of pulp, but this is the more lurid pulp of a later era.) As revolutionary agitation around him approaches its boiling point, Father Egan’s theology becomes increasingly eccentric. He finally devolves or mutates into the haggard guru of an improvised commune gathered near some ancient Indian pyramids where human sacrifices used to be celebrated. Like Greene (and Conrad before him), Stone also tells stories of white men unravelling in the tropics.

A second (and much less Greene-like) storyline involves Pablo Tabor, a deserter from the US Coast Guard who finds work on a boat transporting guns for sale to the Tecanecan revolutionaries. The boat is run by a married couple of decadent American patricians turned buccaneers. They conduct their business through a thick fog of alcohol and pot; Pablo himself is a speed-freak (he is also paranoid, homophobic, racist, and not unintelligent). With its sensational twists and coincidences, and with a particularly lurid sex scene that turns into a shoot-out, this storyline has a strong element of pulp adventure (we’re talking drugs’n’guns pulp – totally unlike Graham Greene).

The third storyline involves Holliwell – an American anthropologist (and Vietnam veteran) who allows himself to be used by the CIA to spy on the Devotionist mission in Tecan. Holliwell, who has already performed some similar (unspecified) work in Vietnam, thus compromising his integrity as a social scientist, is an extreme version of those Graham Greene heroes or non-heroes from The Quiet American, The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973) intellectuals who have stopped believing in anything. That he is no longer a journalist (like the Englishman Fowler in The Quiet American), but an academic, is a sign of the times. It is also a sign of increased self-reflexivity: compared to Greene’s protagonists, he is less able to take his privilege – as a representative of the metropolitan core in the neo-colonial periphery – for granted.

The Quiet American and The Comedians were dramas of commitment vs. neutrality amidst the murk and uncertainties of the Cold War. The Englishman hero of the Quiet American is a cynical neutralist who ends up taking decisive political action for the Communist side: he helps the Viet Minh guerrillas get rid of the American exporter of democracy, Alden Pyle, who is well-meaning but murderous. Fowler’s act of side-taking is rife with ambiguities, ironies, and unresolvable dilemmas. He comes to see the American as dangerous because the latter is a fanatic in the grip of a cause; but the same kind of judgement could easily be applied to the Communists. If Fowler is repelled by Pyle’s blithe meddling in Vietnamese affairs, by his sincere talk of exporting democracy, this is partly because the Englishman embraces what Terry Eagleton has called a “bleakly disenchanted view of the compromised, ineffectual, guilt-ridden nature of all sheerly human endeavor”. This fatalistic view, which Eagleton finds closer to extreme Protestantism than mainstream Catholicism (while other critics have described it as Jansenist), is the dominant one in a number of Graham Greene novels (especially those written earlier than The Quiet American): the world as fallen, its inhabitants as blindly stumbling creatures. It is bound to clash with Pyle’s crusading anti-communism, but, as Eagleton notes, it doesn’t square too easily either with radical left politics. There is also the fact that Fowler partly envies Pyle his youthful capacity for belief, no matter how misguided the content of those beliefs. It makes him aware of the sterility of his own position. His side-taking doesn’t make him happier; as Eagleton notes, his feelings of guilt seem to ratify, at least in part, “the wisdom of his previous detachment”.  On the other hand, there is a humanistic side to Fowler – the source of his (somewhat paternalistic) fellow-feeling (expressed earlier in the novel) for a couple of Vietnamese peasants, and also the source of his shocked response to the bomb-murders orchestrated by Pyle in the interests of his anti-communist cause. To the extent that, in taking action against Pyle, Fowler also follows this humanistic side of his, his sense that human life is something of value, his action is at least partly valuable as a gesture towards life, as an attempt at transcending the sterility of his jaundiced fatalism. In the novels written after The Quiet American, the conservative side of Greene’s Catholicism is increasingly balanced by a humanism – a desire to see value in human life and to stop seeing suffering as a metaphysical fatality, a respect for some of those who fight to reduce suffering (the leprosy-battling doctor in A Burnt-Out Case, or the Communist Haitian doctor in The Comedians) – a humanism which, though not exactly socialist, is friendly towards socialism. In later novels, Greene would try to develop the theme of Catholics and Communists having important affinities.

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Robert Stone – for whom The Quiet American is clearly a key text – inherited this problematic. He came to it at another stage of the Cold War, and also at another, more advanced stage of the fight for decolonization – including the decolonization of literature. By then, a truly ambitious and politically sensitive novelist working in the tradition of Conrad and Greene had to face a number of ideological problems that critics had revealed to be inherent to that literary form. For example, Greene’s Vietnam novel is one in which the Vietnamese themselves exist solely on the periphery of the action (as objects of paternalistic sympathy and Orientalist cliché), while Fowler’s drama of side-choosing and possibly redemptive political action is being played out in the foreground. This kind of narrative – in which white characters ‘find who they are’ against an exotic backdrop of tropical squalor and political turmoil – is an imperial form. As John A. McClure points out, Stone, who is “a student of geopolitical developments and a critic of American imperial policies”, is “acutely aware of the moral irony of this construction of things, in which imperial violence opens a space for imperial citizens to acquire authenticity or salvation”. One of his solutions to the literary predicament he finds himself in is to make his Latin American revolutionaries step forward and center-stage – if only for a chapter – thus making it clear that this is not some Anglo-Saxon savior narrative. (The Tecanecan revolutionaries benefit from some “help from abroad”, but it is clear that they are not just Cold War pawns in the hands of the Soviets.) They include an Indian landowner, a local capitalist who manufactures soap, a surviving member of the outlawed Tecanecan Communist Party (known to his revolutionary superiors as a CIA mole), an engagé priest, a UCLA-educated painter and art historian, and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The presentation of their dialogue may be awkward in parts, but, as Fredric Jameson has noted, it is “nicely salted or spiced by tacit personal appreciations” (there’s a subterranean tension between the old anti-Franco fighter, with his mystique of Spain – Spanish virtues, Spanish grandeur, etc. – and the painter, who is a proponent of indigenismo), and “we are shown how these distinctive individual personalities have all been forged in class situations and bear – or are even constituted by – scars of history that are not mere colorful accidents”.

Stone’s other solution is to make the Fowler figure – the stereotypical desiccated intellectual – into a white anti-savior who manages to be of no use to anyone. Even the dirty work he does for the CIA is work that he accomplishes merely by being passive. Like other Stone protagonists, this Professor Holliwell seems to live in a nearly permanent alcohol-induced stupor. This is nothing like Fowler’s use of opium, with its 19th century aestheticism (he recites Baudelaire as he settles into his internal oasis of peace). Holliwell keeps disintegrating throughout the novel. If The Quiet American builds up to a political act that represents at least in part a gesture towards life (however muddled and corrupted by impure motives), A Flag for Sunrise builds up to an act of totally senseless bloodshed. So much for acquiring authenticity and salvation. Holliwell is actually chided (by one of the many representatives of neo-colonial interests who populate this book) for having come to Tecan lured by the mirage of “moral adventure” – the kind “you can dine out on”. A version of the Greeneian double agent, divided against himself, Holliwell shares Fowler’s reflex opposition to the Cold War rhetoric of the Western capitalist side. Travelling into Tecan from the neighboring (and equally fictional) state of Compostela, in the company of two young American diplomats, husband and wife, and a sullen journalist who talks like a liberal (and may be another self-hating double agent), he gets into a conversation about whether “the people down here have to live this way so that we can live the way we do”. (It is the journalist who asks this question.) One of the diplomats answers that it would be too simple. Holliwell doesn’t commit to an answer, but comments that, if that’s true, “it makes us into vampires”, into “the cartoon figures of the Communist press”.

Holliwell has been invited to Compostela – which is another American client state, like Tecan, but with a liberal façade – for an academic lecture. His non-stop drinking ensures that the conference is a disaster. This set piece reminds Fredric Jameson of unspecified scenes in Hitchcock; Graham Greene’s parody of a literary conference bungled by the British Council (by inviting the wrong man), in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, also comes to mind. The drunken gringo Holliwell starts rambling about US cultural imperialism – how American mass culture has colonized the world. His diatribe is politically ambivalent – as he notes himself, such broadsides have been launched many times in the past by conservatives and leftists alike. Although he also lashes out at Soviet communism (“Do you think that despair leads me to cast envious eyes on Latvia or Kirghizstan?”) and at Marxist ideology in general (“I regard Marxism as analogous to a cargo cult. It’s a naïve invocation of a verbal machine.”), his very pro-American audience (made up of members of Compostela’s comprador bourgeoisie) perceives him as a typical Communist academic – or at least as a weakener of necessary Cold War resolve. Later, while sharing memories of Vietnam with the diplomat Zecca (who turns out to be a captain), and listening to him pretend solemnly that nothing he has done (in Central America or South-East Asia) has cost him his honor, sounding as if he really wanted to be believed, Holliwell denies him that comfort: “Do you expect to conduct your career in one American-sponsored shithole after another, partying with their ruling class, advising their conscripts in counterinsurgency and overseeing heir armaments, and not compromise your oath or your honor? Because that sounds very tricky to me.”

Still, Holliwell is too poisoned by his compromises and despair to be capable of any remotely positive act. If he, too, feels the push-pull of commitment, it’s only a vampiric version of it: envying and admiring Sister Justin’s conviction (her “hunger for absolutes”), tickled by the proximity of true idealism (“It would be strange to see people who believed in things, and acted in the world according to what they believed.”), he also feels an urge to defile and destroy it. He carries on argument with her. (At some point they alo have sex.) When he is in a relatively mellow disposition, their exchanges tend to sound like this:

“Yes,”, she said. “Even here. Even Tecan isn’t beyond justice.”

“But it’s only a word. It’s just something in people’s heads.”

“That’s good enough,” she told him.


“Maybe it is good enough,” he said.

“Even here we have history. Things change. People want their rights.”             

“Does history take care of people?”

“I wish I knew,” she said. “Maybe in the end. In the meantime people take care of themselves.”

Later we find him at his most savagely nihilistic: “The things people do don’t add up to an edifying story. There aren’t any morals to this confusion we’re living in. I mean, you can make yourself believe any sort of fable about it. They’re all bullshit.”

When she’s not with him, he continues the argument in his own head, raging against all true believers, against all people with causes. His nihilism is powerfully stated (and it is far from being conclusively refuted by the end of the novel), but it is also self-hating. No matter how cynical he is about the Tecanecan revolution (clearly modelled by Stone on the late-70s struggles in Nicaragua and El Salvador), he doesn’t forget for a moment that self-hating imperial vampires like him have no business there. (In this he again resembles Greene’s self-flagellating Fowler, who, talking to the American Pyle, observes at one point that both of them deserve to have their throats cut by Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas.)

The male fantasy of deflowering a nun, complete with purple writing, is one of those lurid ingredients thrown by Stone into this very substantial novel of ideas which sometimes reads like a feverishly pulpy political and theological fantasy. Still, Stone doesn’t just paint exotic backdrops. As Jameson has remarked, he takes pains to fill in the details of how Tecan’s neo-colonial economy works: “Indeed, the flaw in many otherwise admirable political novels or films can often be located in the nonchalance and irresponsibility with which the stage is set, the pretext for the narrative is disclosed in passing, and the preconditions for political unrest are dispatched, as though in the outside world revolutionary ferment were a constant possibility that did not need precise materialist analysis. Stone is very lucid about the inadequacy of simply endowing an imaginary Central American country with a revolutionary movement a priori and without further justification. Its condition of possibility here is explained by the pressures on the Atapa Indian population in the interior, whose farmlands are destroyed by new government mining operations on the one hand (the main chance of a poor supplier of valuable raw materials in the new world system) and the expansion of multinational tourist industries and installations on the other: base and superstructure: the combination of a 60s’ economic explanation of neo-imperialism with an 80s’ and 90s’ cultural and media expansion version of that explanation.”

Part of this analysis of imperialism, which Jameson finds “politically intelligent and economically and socially up to date”, is provided by the agents of imperialism themselves. Along with a professional counter-revolutionary of Cuban origin and a vicious Englishman who represents corporate interests (and for whom missionaries – missionaries in general, not just Egan’s renegade Devotionists – are nothing but “a pack of reds”), this vividly drawn group of characters includes the married diplomatic couple who travels with Holliwell from Compostela to Tecan. These two are amiable, worldly, well educated, good with languages. They talk with open cynicism about their contempt for the Tecanecan dictator whom the US supports. The man drunkenly insists at one point that his secret service work has not cost him his military honor, but apart from that both he and his wife are free of illusions about what they’re doing there, which is helping to prop up a greedy and murderous puppet regime. They are not bumbling American idealists like Greene’s Alden Pyle, who really believes that his killing and scheming to set up a puppet government will make Vietnam into a democracy. In this important aspect, A Flag for Sunrise updates and revises The Quiet American for the post-Vietnam era.

“All things merge into one another – good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics.” These words of Thomas Hardy’s, used by Greene as an epigraph to The Honorary Consul, also apply to A Flag for Sunrise, with the difference that here it is the theological that finally subsumes the political. Jameson called A Flag for Sunrise “one of the rare great [American] political novels of [its] period”, adding that “the imperial power cannot represent itself to itself, cannot come to any authentic form of representational self-knowledge, unless it is able to include within that representation the represented realities of its colonies. This is something we have long since understood in individual terms, in terms of an individualizing psychology: if you are a jailer, for example, your truth cannot adequately be represented without your prisoners; if a tyrant, without your subjects; if a torturer, without your victims. It cannot be any different when we come to collectivities; and this is something we have gradually come to understand for the past, for the older or classical system of imperialism – whose central power was Great Britain – namely, that something peculiar happens structurally and formally to a literature that is forced by the nature of things to exclude those Others that in many respects constitutively define it”. Hence the importance of Robert Stone in postwar American literature.

However, it gradually becomes apparent that, in Jameson’s words, “besides being a great political novel, [A Flag for Sunrise] also has some claims to be a great religious [one]”. All the major North American characters whom Stone puts on a collision course under tropical skies are pilgrims of one sort or another: Holliwell the intellectual as well as Pablo the man of impulse, the whiskey priest as well as the revolutionary nun – all of them are seekers after meaning. Stone relativizes the conclusions they reach by making all these people, by the end of the story, feverish, delirious, muddled. Justin seems to find meaning in martyrdom. As she is dying under torture (a very powerful scene, written entirely from her point of view, so that we never know exactly what is being done to her), she is inspired to confront her torturer, the bestial Lieutenant Campos, with the same words that Mary uttered when she was told that she will give birth to God’s son. These words strike superstitious terror in the heart of the torturer, turning her death at his hands into a spiritual victory over him. Meanwhile, Holliwell’s paralyzing nihilism achieves a haiku-like concentration: “Just out here. Everyone alone. The rest is fantasy”. People have nothing and no one apart from each other; that’s why life is hell; that’s why they make up fables – religious, political – which give meaning to their suffering. Father Egan reaches a comparable conclusion: “Reach out a hand and there’s only the terrifying touch of flesh, nothing firmer or finer. Ask questions and the answers are veiled in illusion, words from a fever dream.” However, he clings to the belief that there is a “little shard of light”, a glimmer in the nothingness – though not a human-friendly glimmer, but something indifferent. As for Pablo, he finds refuge in Father Egan’s improvised commune (which includes a Mennonite serial killer) and experiences an illumination while listening, in a state of physical and mental exhaustion, to what is being preached there; henceforth he surrenders to what he calls “the process”. It all feels like an apocalyptic terminus to a great quest begun in the 1960s. Reaching past Greene, Stone is trying for his own – and the counterculture’s – Heart of Darkness.

Some two hundred pages before this apocalyptic finale, Holliwell (who is an amateur diver) has had an underwater brush with the numinous. He has felt something down there while diving – maybe a shark, maybe the presence of Evil, or maybe just the deadly nothingness of existence. Anyway, “a terror had struck the sea, an invisible shadow, a silence within a silence”. This passage has been justly celebrated for the beauty of its language; it is learnable by heart and recitable like poetry. However, to less enthralled readers it can also present signs of metaphysical hokeyness. These multiply as Stone works hard the theme of history as a field of bones – the suggestion that underneath what we call history there may be nothing but creatures eating each other. The novelist piles on references to the Holocaust and to ancient human sacrifices. To further raise the metaphysical stakes, he brings in a serial killer and conjures gnostic visions of a malevolent Demiurge. Trying for the visionary, he risks the overwrought, the metaphysical Grand Guignol.

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