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Human Factor, The

The Human Factor, Our Man in Havana, The Confidential Agent

a novel by Graham Greene, published in 1978. A return late in Greene's career to the genre of spy fiction, The Human Factor partly resembles Our Man in Havana (1958). ‘We have our own country’, remarks Maurice Castle's black South African wife, Sarah: as in the earlier novel, Secret Service chiefs appear cynical, absurd Machiavels, and it is love and loyalty to individuals, rather than states or systems, which is most valued. The Human Factor differs, however, in ending bleakly, with Castle isolated from Sarah at the end of a broken telephone line, in a glacial Moscow to which he defects after—as readers very gradually discover throughout—years of passing secrets to the Russians in recompense for Communist assistance in rescuing Sarah from the South African secret police.

Greene talks of attempting in this novel a spy story free of conventional violence and glamour, and extensive detail of ordinary life in drab, contemporary Britain helps establish MI6 almost as an ordinary job for a Berkhamsted commuter. Like Castle himself, The Human Factor is not ‘James Bond minded’; its complex plot, plausible characters, and interest in the intricate power balances of the Cold War place it closer to the work of Greene's admirer John le Carré than to Ian Fleming. While making the spy genre naturalistic, Greene also makes of the ‘traitor’, Castle, an entirely natural, engaging figure. Greene was a friend of Kim Philby, one of his chiefs during his own Secret Service work: sometimes referred to as ‘The Third Man’ when he defected to Moscow in 1963, Philby quoted Greene's The Confidential Agent (1939) in defence of his actions. Greene denies Philby's relevance to The Human Factor, but records abandoning the novel (begun in the 1960s) until his defection was partly forgotten, and critics continue to assume a connection. Biographical or not, its well-tried themes of loyalty, betrayal, and individual responsibility within a heartless history make it among the best of Greene's late novels.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Honest Ulsterman to Douglas Hyde Biography