Getting to Know The General

Henry Graham Greene (1904-1991) Credit:  Wikipedia Encyclopedia

The name Graham Greene had been dormant in a foggy area of my brain for a prolonged time, until it was brought back to the surface by Linda, an exquisite blogger from Texas.  In one of her blog posts she mentioned that she had stayed in a hotel where Graham Greene had slept during his sojourns to West Africa.  Greene has been an intrepid traveller all of his life, thus every time he visits he is trying to see as much of the country as possible. Greene first left Europe at the early age of 30 in 1935 on a trip to Liberia that produced the travel book, Journey Without Maps.

Throughout his life, Greene travelled far from England, to what he called the world’s wild and remote places. The travels led to his being recruited into MI6 by his sister, Elisabeth, who worked for the organisation; and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War. Kim Philby, who would later be revealed as a Soviet agent, was Greene’s supervisor and friend at MI6.

Graham Greene  was an English novelist and author regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  Through 67 years of writings which included over 25 novels, he explored the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world through a Catholic perspective.

Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a Roman Catholic novelist rather than as a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair which are regarded as “the gold standard” of the Catholic novel. Several works such as The Confidential Agent, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor also show an avid interest in the workings of international politics and espionage.  At this moment I’m reading his comedy-novel, Our Man in Havana about international espionage in Cuba.

After reading Linda’s blog post, I remembered that Graham Greene had visited Panama at the unsolicited invitation of Brigadier General Omar Torrijos Herrera to visit Panama in 1976.  The motive for that invitation was never made explicit, but clearly Torrijos was aware of Greene’s stature as a writer, and presumably he believed Greene would provide him a favorable representation in the world press.  He immediately accepted the unexpected  invitation knowing only of Panama from the exploits of the pirate Henry Morgan and the mysterious death of Sir Francis Drake in the area. In the process he becomes an intimate friend of the ruler and his fascinating friend/body guard-Chuchu, a former professor, soldier, pilot, and Lothario with scores of ex-lovers and children. He will visit the country five times between 1976 and 1983.

Omar Torrijos Herrera (1929-1981). Credit:

During a time frame of seven years, a warm relationship grew between the writer and the military-political dictator of Panama.  Usually they stayed at Torrijos’ beach house at the village of Farallón near the Pacific Ocean seaside.  They stayed late at night talking about the political situation in Latin America and the different insurrection movements in Central America—specially in Nicaragua.  Friendly women and Scotch whiskey blended smoothly with their wee-hours-tête-à-têtes.  It was an open secret that Torrijos was a womanizer and liked to be near a bottle of good whiskey.  Greene was also fond of good liquor and ladies of the night.

For a dictator – he seized power in 1968 and continued to dominate Panama until his death—Torrijos exuded a surprising vulnerability. Shy, even gauche, on social occasions, he preferred the company of women. He suffered from insomnia and would frequently drink heavily in search of sleep. He hated giving press interviews and would seem pained when speaking in public. He was also sentimental, feeling empathy for the rural poor and tolerating his critics almost paternalistically. But above all, Torrijos was a private person, revealing himself – and his ”manic” sense of humor—only to a handful of people he came to trust. Two of these were novelists—Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the Colombian Nobel laureate, and Graham Greene.

In his book, Our Man in Havana, Greene describes the following scene in which two of the novel’s characters meet in a bar.  “When they met in Sloppy Joe’s bar, Hawthorne surveys the range of bottles on offer and says:”

‘Eighteen different kinds of Scotch…including Black Label.  And I haven’t counted the Bourbons.  It’s a wonderful sight.  Wonderful’ he repeated, lowering his voice with respect.  ‘Have you ever seen so many whiskies?’

‘As a matter of fact I have.  I collect miniatures and I have ninety-nine at home’.

As a result of Greene’s intimate friendship with Torrijos, he decided to write a book about their involvement.  The name of the book is, “Getting to Know the General:  The Story of an Involvement”.  The beginning of the book is rife with tension as the General negotiates a treaty for the handing over of the Panama Canal with then President Jimmy Carter. From there the politics of South America and Central America have a routine background role in the story as it was a time of dictators and revolts in Latin America—many of them with unwanted intervention by the U.S. through the CIA and other means.


In August 1981, while he was packing for his fifth trip, he received word at his home in Antibes, France, that Torrijos had died in a plane crash. ”I have never lost as good a friend as Omar Torrijos,” Greene notes of a man whom, he recalls unabashedly, ”I had grown to love.”  The book he wrote is a tribute to that friendship. It records Greene’s four trips to Panama to visit the general and his return in January 1983 to keep alive his own—and Panama’s—memories of Torrijos.

Even after the General dies, Greene makes one last visit to Panama at the behest of Chuchu and the new administration. The later part of the book becomes more focused on the politics of the region and bears some resemblance to Salaman Rushdie’s book about Nicaragua at a similar time, The Jaguar’s Smile.  Many literary critics claim that Greene is a better writer than Rushdie and the cast of real life characters who populate the book are larger than life as well: Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, every Latin America leader of state from the time period including Fidel Castro and the soon to be infamous General Manuel Noriega, Arthur Koestler, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What starts out as a somewhat fragmentary memoir ends up being not only a deeply humane portrait of a political and military leader who in many ways typifies Latin American politics, but an insightful overview of the Central American (even more broadly Latin American) political context in the late 1970s and early ’80s.  During this period the so called Cold War was getting white hot.

While the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations form the centerpiece of the first half of the book, the second half focuses on Panama’s support, under Torrijos, of left-wing forces elsewhere in Central America, including the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Here the friendship Greene developed with Torrijos, broadens into a political sympathy for those leftist groups, and in fact Greene finds himself drawn personally into fascinating intrigues, finding himself such as acting as an intermediary in separate hostage crises involving kidnappings of a South African diplomat and employees of a British bank by left-wing Salvadorean guerillas. Later, Greene is visited in France by Central American guerrilla leaders en route to Italy, searching for financial support for their cause–they believe Greene, a famous author, might put them in contact with rich sympathizers.

Graham Greene is dead and so is General Omar Torrijos Herrera.  Some historians will claim they were flawed men; others will argue that they were extraordinary men, one a writer, the latter a political leader.  I will conclude that in the real world nothing is totally white nor black.  In between there is an infinite spectrum of gray.  Absolute perfection in my humble opinion is a mere literary illusion.  Good Day.


5 thoughts on “Getting to Know The General”

  1. Very interesting. I think it’s pretty clear both were flawed, and both were extraordinary — as you say, there’s a wide spectrum there, and no reason they couldn’t be both. I started, but haven’t finished, “Our Man in Havana.” Once I’ve finished it, I just might pick up“Getting to Know the General.” Winter, also known as the Reading Season, is on its way, and my list is growing.

  2. I’m still reading “Our Man in Havana” which is easy to assimilate because of my relationship with the Latinamerican culture. In many ways Cuba is like Panama, except of course Mr. Fidel Castro who doesn’t belong in the equation.

    Thinking about it, I might just read “Getting to Know the General” as my next book. I looked it up, but couldn’t find a Kindle version of the book, and I try not to buy paper books.



  3. I’ve read many of Greene’s books but my favorite of them all is “Travels With My Aunt.” Described by Graham Greene as “the only book I have written just for the fun of it,” Travels with My Aunt is the story of Hanry Pulling, a retired and complacent bank manager who meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time at what he supposes to be his mother’s funeral. She soon persuades Henry to abandon his dull suburban existence to travel her way—winding through Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, and Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, one of Greene’s greatest comic creations, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society; mixes with hippies, war criminals, and CIA men; smokes pot; and breaks all currency regulations.

  4. At this moment I’m reading “Our Man in Havana” which is another entertainment or comedy novel written by Graham Greene. It’s interesting to point out that in real life Greene was a man close to the bottle. The same happens to Greene’s characters; most of them are fond of good Scotch whiskey.

    I would like to read the book about General Torrijos, but can’t find a Kindle version on Amazon, and I don’t enjoy paper books anymore. If I have no other options but to buy a paper book, so be it.

    Greene was a cool guy who lived an intense life. Good for him.



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