Frederic Raphael

Floundering in the shallows

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No Man’s Land

Graham Greene

Hesperus, pp. 114, £

This is a slim two-in-one offer of a pair of previously undisclosed ‘novellas’ (actually film treatments) by Graham Greene. In 1949, when they were written, The Third Man had just been a prodigious hit for the author, Carol Reed and Orson Welles. No Man’s Land — the sole complete piece on parade here — was an attempt to take another bite from much the same cherry (or a squeeze from the same Lime).

This time, Richard Brown, a British agent with a ‘neutral name’, crosses into the Soviet zone, in the Harz mountains, in order to find what Hitchcock called ‘the McGuffin’, that vital doesn’t-matter-much-what which serves to prime a thriller’s plot. Here it’s a coded message hidden, in extremis, by a colleague of Brown’s who didn’t survive, detailing secret Soviet uranium mines in the region. A typical Greene touch plants the coded clue in a Marian shrine, where the Virgin is said to have appeared to some young girls and which has become a place of pilgrimage.

While checking out the site where the Virgin has supposedly manifested her love for innocent faith, Brown is smitten by the earthly love incarnate (it says here) in Clara. A coup de foudre strikes simultaneously as they spot each other among the ‘holy junk, on sale to the credulous’. Who are the fools now, the faithful or the infatuated?

Brown has crossed the east/west demarcation line less out of patriotism than from professional loyalty to a dead colleague. His meeting with the beautiful Clara — the stockpot girl in the belted mac who is no kind of a virgin but stands, we are told by David Lodge’s foreword, for ‘Christian charity’— is not wholly by chance (you didn’t guess, did you?). She is on the watch for whoever comes looking for the McGuffin, although — and because? — she is already the mistress of the Russian ‘M[sic]KVD officer’ Starhov, whose name (with an ‘h’ dropped into it) Greene lifted from Turgenev’s Starov, in On the Eve, which Brown has, coincidentally, been reading. Clever stuff, you see.

With plot-forwarding improbability, the semi-tough Russian asks the arrested suspect for his parole, enabling him to have some fresh company in his ch