‘It’s possible, of course, just possible,’ C said, ‘that the leak came from abroad and that the evidence has been planted here. They would like to disrupt us, damage morale and hurt us with the Americans. The knowledge that there was a leak, if it became public, could be more damaging than the leak itself.’ ‘That’s what I was thinking,’ Percival said. ‘Questions in Parliament. All the old names thrown up – Vassall, the Portland affair, Philby. But if they’re after publicity, there’s little we can do.’
I read The Human Factor shortly after finishing Ben Macintyre’s biography of Kim Philby – A Spy Among Friends. It is impossible to read a biography of Philby and not think of Graham Greene. Just as it is impossible to read The Human Factor and not wonder about the underlying motives that made people not only join the secret service but also made them defect from it and turn into double agents. With respect to Philby in particular, it still is a mystery to me how anyone could have regarded the Soviet Union as a place to aspire to live. Of course, as mentioned in my review of Macintyre’s book, I can look at the Soviet Union from a perspective less tainted with either hope or propaganda whereas no-one at the time that The Human Factor was written had the privilege of hindsight.
It is all the more fascinating that Greene should pick up a story of defection and focus on the motivations of the spy and the efforts of counter-espionage to exercise damage control – the game which gives so little consideration to the human factor:
‘I wish I were a chess player. Do you play chess, Daintry?’ ‘No, bridge is my game.’ ‘The Russians don’t play bridge, or so I understand.’ ‘Is that important?’ ‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it. We have to keep flexible, but it’s important, naturally, to play the same game.’ ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Daintry said, ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about.’
Greene’s tale is full of gritty suspense as a leak is detected and a ruthless man-hunt for the informant takes its toll on the lives of the characters involved.
Daintry said, ‘Come away, Castle. I’ll buy you another owl, Sylvia.’
‘It’s irreplaceable, that one.’
‘A man’s dead,’ Daintry said. ‘He’s irreplaceable too.’
However, in his typical style Greene also pays tribute to human character being a complex and multi-layered beast – he accurately accurately observes that not all spies are committed to the cause, that not all agents completely subscribe to any ideology without deviation. He manages to portray the naivety of people and creates moving moments of conflict and hope and despair.
“People talked of courage as a primary virtue. What of the courage of a known swindler and bankrupt taking his place in the dining-room of the House of Commons? Is courage a justification? Is courage in whatever cause a virtue?”
4* (out of 5*)