A Wartime Parable: The Tenth Man

407I’ve always had a soft spot for Graham Greene after first reading his The Power and the Glory. I purchased The Tenth Man 4 years ago, so it’s somewhat embarrassing that I haven’t read it yet. Well, that problem is corrected as I had a chance to dig into it over the last week. The backstory to the novella is that Greene wrote this as a movie script for MGM during World War II to help put food on his table. MGM locked it up and kept it hidden away in a vault until 1983 when it was purchased by Anthony Blond who then published it as a book in 1988. This has got to be one of the strangest journeys from pen to publication for any writer as Greene himself expresses surprise at the quality of the manuscript in the book’s preface.

Anyways, The Tenth Man is a parable of sorts with a small cast of characters and a central moral problem. Jean-Louis Chavel is a wealthy lawyer who ends up in a Nazi prison along with 29 other men. The Nazis decide to kill 3 in retaliation for some resistance attacks and leave the prisoners to choose for themselves who will die. Lots are chosen and Chavel’s number comes up. However, rather than accept his fate, he offers his wealth and estate to anyone willing to trade positions with him. Janvier, a poor man, decides to make his mother and sister rich and accepts Chavel’s offer. This decision drives the plot of the novel and provides the intriguing central theme of the novel: how are we to view Chavel’s actions? Is he simply a coward looking to escape death, or would we have done the same in his position? Greene leaves this question hanging and never truly resolves it even as Chavel comes to see his own action as cowardly and wrong. What I liked most about The Tenth Man is how I could easily empathize with Chavel yet also found his brokenness a little too unsettling for my own sense of self at times.

There is a sense in which this kind of fiction reads a bit strange in 2014 as narratives of moral and spiritual progress are passe. The Tenth Man reads more like a Dostoevsky novel than one by Michael Chabon or Margaret Atwood. It hearkens back to an older mode of fiction where character was more important than plot or action. I think this may be in part because the cast of characters is so small and the action is relatively muted. However, this does not hinder Greene’s ability to paint a complex canvas. To return to the parable analogy, there’s a way in which the simplicity of the narrative lends itself to the complex moral portrait that emerges. In some ways, The Tenth Man‘s conclusion is quite similar to The Power and the Glory as human dignity becomes a key part of the final action. While some may be put off by Greene’s Catholic sympathies, I think that this novel is an important reminder about the importance of character and our own ability to fail to live up to a high standard of justice.

I recommend this book for fans of Greene’s work and for anyone who likes Dostoevsky.

Greene, Graham. The Tenth Man. Toronto: L & OD, 1985. Print.