‘The Third Man’ by Graham Green (1950)

Having always avoided The Book Club and The Reading Group whilst living in the UK (reading for me has always been so personal that the idea of discussing something that is so personal with a group of people had never appealed to me – it would feel more like a support group or something, which I guess might be part of the appeal), somehow I ended up signing up for, and looking forward to, one here in Madrid.  A book club in another language felt like a totally different prospect.  Perhaps the restrictions on what you can actually say due to the second language factor makes it more appealing than doing it in an native language, where fear of either going off on a tangent, or having to listen to one, is reduced.  Or maybe it is the reverse: talking about something with which you are familiar (the language of literature and of criticism) and with which you have an affinity with makes it easier to do in a second language than other things are in a second language.  For example, this summer my Dad was visiting me and needed some very specific plumping parts to fix the toilet.  When we got into the shop I realised that I had no idea what to say, the nouns the vocabulary for toilet parts are things I barely have in English, let alone in Spanish.  Either way, the book that was up this month was Graham Green’s novella, The Third Man, so I decided to read it in the original English.   This won me admiration from the group and I was asked to repeat his name many times in my ‘accent’ to the delight of everyone.  An English accent always sounds kind of ugly to me, so it was nice to feel exotic for 30 seconds of my life.

What I particularly liked about preparing for the meet-up was having to read closely, take notes and think about the novella critically.  I haven’t done that for a while: reading for a purpose and for a deadline.  The findings of my close reading I’m sure are very obvious, especially to those who know the film or the rationale behind the book, but here they are all the same:

Multiple Personalities:

A very well developed theme in the novella: almost all the main characters are not what they seem, or perhaps it is better to say, they are not only what they seem.  For example:

  • Rollo Martins

Rollo Martins – the novel’s protagonist – actually comprises of two people: Rollo and Martins.  They both have opposing personalities, Rollo being impulsive and Martins methodical.  During the investigation into Harry Lime’s death, they fight against, and within, each other for control of Rollo Martins the whole.  In addition, in his profession as a writer of pulp fiction westerns, Rollo Martins has a pseudonym called Buck Dexter – his third personality, and even his pseudonym has a further extension in Benjamin Dexter, another writer with a very different pedigree to Buck and for whom the British Council official in Vienna confuses Buck Dexter (Rollo Martins).  The idea of Rollo Martins and the other characters’ multiple personalities – their shadow selves – can perhaps be summarised in this lovely quote from Rollo Martins:

“I stood there at the curtains, waiting to pull them, looking out.  I couldn’t see anything but my own face, looking back into the room.”

It is at times like these that one can feel the influence of film noir in the writing.  This scene from the quote can easily be imagined in a film noir setting and the whole novella exudes this atmosphere.  This is something that I hadn’t thought of before the book club meeting: the idea that the story was written to be made into a script instead of the more common situation where an existing book is turned into a script/film.  Interestingly Greene preferred the film, which kind of makes sense, as this is what usually happens when books are turned into films, the book – the original – is considered the better.

  • Harry Lime

It seems with Harry Lime that everyone who knows him has their own idea of who he is.  As Calloway muses to himself:

‘”[Rollo] I don’t suppose anyone knows Harry the way I do,” and I thought of the thick file of agents’ reports in my office, each claiming the same thing.’

Moreover, Lime lives a double life in a more practical, obvious sense through his work as a trafficker and once Rollo Martins learns the truth about Harry’s double life, he begins to refer to him as ‘Harry’ when he wants to refer to his old friend and ‘Lime’ when he wants to refer to the criminal he has become.  Additionally, Harry is the ‘Third Man’ referred to in the novel’s title, the shadow being chased by Rollo Martins through Vienna and Harry’s faking of his own death gives another branch to his multiple personality in that he exists in the living world and also in the Other world.

  • Calloway, Kurtz and Anna

These three characters are also multi-faceted.  Calloway is referred to by Rollo wrongly as ‘Callaghan’ – an Irish surname – for the first half of the novella and Calloway describes himself as a ‘policeman in a colonal’s uniform’.  Kurtz wears a toupee, although he has a full head of hair.  Rollo says that: “There must be something phoney about a man who won’t accept baldness gracefully.”  Giving him a double ‘phoniness’ as he isn’t bald at all.  Rollo Martins also says of Kurtz’s face that: “He had one of those faces too where the lines have been put in carefully, like make-up, in the right places”.  Anna, in turn, is Hungarian pretending to Austrian and living in the British zone of Vienna.

Multiple Worlds:

In addition to the multiple personalities of the characters, the world they inhabit is also multifarious and constantly shifting.

  • Vienna

The Vienna of the novella was divided after WW2 into four parts, four countries effectively: Great Britian, France, the United States and Russia, which gives it a multiple identity in a practical sense.  However, there is a fifth world, a fifth dimension, in the sewers underneath the city: the underworld where all the trafficking takes place.  The narrator, Calloway, calls our attention to this towards the climax of the novella, when Harry Lime is being pursued through the sewer system.  He says: “What a strange world unknown to most of us lies under our feet: we live above a cavernous land of waterfalls and rushing rivers, where tides ebb and flow as in the world above.”

  • Worlds within other worlds

Perhaps the apotheosis of the novella’s multiple-personalitied protagonists and the ever moving multiple worlds they inhabit comes when Rollo Martins, acting as Buck Dexter, acting as Benjamin Dexter, in the talk he has wrongly been invited to by the British Council, is asked by an audience member, who believes he is Benjamin Dexter, whether he is working on anything new and what the title is.  Rollo/Martins/Buck/Benjamin answer ‘yes’ and that it is called ‘The Third Man’.  Which is to say that the work of fiction being pretended to be worked on doesn’t exist, as Rollo Martins is Buck Dexter, not Benjamin Dexter.  However, the name is drawn out of him because of the experience he is living in Vienna in that moment; looking for Harry and trying to unravel the mystery of the third man seen at the moment Harry ‘died’.  So in this sense, the fiction of a fiction has a reality based in the fictional reality of Rollo Martins’ world.  A further layer is added when we consider that ‘The Third Man’ is the name Greene gave the the novella, making it ‘real’ in the sense of an existing work of fiction, which brings it full circle back to the fake Benjamin Dexter and his questioner.  Perhaps Benjamin Dexter is also Greene’s alter ego, written in to parody himself.  Indeed, Benjamin Dexter is described as well-respected and a master of style, but slightly ‘old-maidish’ and overly interested in religion.  These kinds of descriptions/criticism could possibly have been directed at and experienced by Greene, and certainly the staid atmosphere and the routine of the book tour must have been familiar to him.

All this reminds me of University and first being introduced to postmodernism, after which I have never been to stop seeing ‘stories within stories’ in everything.  That could be why I liked this novella so much.


Carmen, the organiser of the meeting, was interested (she is Spanish) in the British writer’s characterisation of Americans.  She thought Greene’s treatment of the American character Cooler and the presence of the American army in Vienna in this era was all pretty standard of the attitude of the British to North America, then and now.  I’m not sure whether she is right or not, perhaps it is harder to judge from the inside, but here is what Greene said about it:

“The Englishman who objects to Americans in general usually carries in his minds’ eye just such an exception as Cooler: a man with tousled grey hair and a worried kindly face and long-sighted eyes, the kind of humanitarian who turns up in a typhus epidemic or a world war or a Chinese famine long before his countrymen have discovered the place in an atlas.”

Another comment Carmen made that I hadn’t thought about was the fact that war makes everyones’ morals questionable.  The motivations for war itself and the subsequent struggle to survive pulls into question what is right and wrong at a personal and a political level.  Therefore we are all Harry Lime to an extent and like Lime himself says, governments don’t ‘think in terms of human beings’, which in a sense at once degrades and excuses us all.

Unfortunately I have started a new job with a new timetable which means I won’t be able to go to that particular book club again, but it was good, I enjoyed it, I recommend it.


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