A disturbing read – and perhaps more so than the author intended.
Graham Greene is a favourite author of mine and one re-read from time to time. Recently, I’ve been re-reading some of his earlier, pre-Second World War books, those described by him as ‘Entertainments’ – this one, A Gun For Hire, The Ministry Of Fear.
Something which currently is sitting uncomfortably with me, most shocking from a writer who developed into someone who seemed to have a tender, humane understanding of our complex, fragile, muddied up, neither angel nor demon/beast, but mashed up both, is the casual anti-Semitism expressed, many times, within this book (and, on a recent re-read, there it is again in A Gun For Hire)
Both books are about various layers of villainy and corruption. Brighton Rock (the title has a double meaning, as becomes clear towards the end of the novel) was of course made particularly famous by the film starring a baby-faced Dickie ‘Darling’ Attenborough, as the teenaged, vicious, damaged ‘Pinkie’. The plot concerns two rival criminal mobs, working the gambling industry and more. The seedy, less successful end is a small-time gang, currently led by a damaged seventeen year old, a slum-child, raised a Catholic, from a violent background. This is Pinkie. The successful gang, able to manipulate those in authority, is led by rich and powerful Jew, Colleoni. Later in the book it is intimated he may go into politics as a Conservative. Once again there is the suggestion which surfaces of some sort of Jewish conspiracy. However unpleasant, however vicious, however thuggish Pinkie is, the violence of his background is placed before us, ‘what chance did he have’ We don’t get offered ‘mitigating circumstances’ for Colleoni.
What this did for me, yet again, was to expose how pervasive a generalised anti-Semitism was in society. I guess it took a couple more years (this was published in 1938) before people would begin to distance themselves from this particular manifestation of racial stereotyping.
Outwith the discomfort for the reader who comes to this after the events of the Second World War, this is still a disturbing and complex read, though one with a strong narrative drive and a believable triumvirate of central characters, like an unholy version of Father Son and Holy Spirit, (as Catholicism and the Trinity runs deeply through it) Instead, we have a version of Mother, Daughter and Unholy Spirit.
Pinkie, in fact at one point, who sees himself as damned, corrupt (and is so) says ‘Credo in unum Satanum’. Ida, the blowsy, materialism-being-here-is-all-there-is who is the instigator of nearly all which transpires, through her desire for justice and to see right done, has no religion, but a lust for the physicality of life. She drinks hard, she beds hard, and has no sense of ‘mortal sin’ Ida, who has no children, nevertheless takes a Motherly protective role to the other damaged youngster, Rose, a young waitress from a similar background to Pinkie, also a Catholic, but one still believing. Rose will be sacrificed between Ida and Pinkie, as their different agendas play out – but Rose is also the willing sacrifice, choosing to damn herself, knowingly.
It’s an unsettling book, dark, and hopeless in many ways – and yet full of passages of beauty and energy. For reasons which I can’t quite explain, it reminded me of Kandinsky’s paintings – these nuggets of light and colour and vibrant energy and precision of place, form, time, and rich meaning, all within a narrative drive which got darker and darker
A stranger; the word meant nothing to her: there was no place in the world where she felt a stranger. She circulated the dregs of the cheap port in her glass and remarked to no-one in particular: ‘It’s a good life.’ There was nothing with which she didn’t claim kinship: the advertising mirror behind the barman’s back flashed her own image at her; the beach girls went giggling across the parade; the gong beat on the steamer for Boulogne – it was a good life. Only the darkness in which the Boy walked, going from Billy’s, going back to Billy’s, was alien to her: she had no pity for something she didn’t understand. She said; ‘I’ll be getting on.’