Greene, Graham. The Tenth Man.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Back in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Graham Greene was in Hollywood trying to become a screenwriter, as a possible solution to his cash-flow problems. (His novels, while well received, weren’t earning him much.) One of his ideas, based on a true incident of the Spanish Civil War, involved a group of French hostages being held by the Germans as guarantors for the good behavior of the civilian population. When a couple of soldiers are shot, the hostages are informed that one-tenth of them will be executed in reprisal — a classic decimation.

In one hut, there are thirty prisoners, so they draw lots to see which three of them will die. One of the randomly chosen three is a lawyer, a man of considerable inherited wealth, who doesn’t fit in with the laborers and clerks who make up the rest of the group, and he doesn’t see why he should be the one to die. He offers to give everything he has to any of the others who will take his place, and is taken up on it by a young man — Janvier — who wants to provide for his mother and sister (figuring everyone in the hut is going to die anyway, if not now then tomorrow or next month). And so it happens. Now, it’s four years later. Chavel, the lawyer, who now has nothing — except his life — has managed to survive the occupation, and after trying unsuccessfully to land a job somewhere he finds himself drawn to the house in the country, his ex-home, where Janvier’s mother and sister now live. He gives them a false name, tells them he knew Janvier, and does odd jobs for a few days. Then he’s invited to stay on and finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the sister. And then another man appears, claiming to be Chavel. You can see where all this is going, right? It’s melodrama, certainly, but the set-up is almost Shakespearean tragedy.

The interesting thing is, Greene had forgotten all about this story, even when he later was doing The Third Man, and it sat in MGM’s vaults for several decades until someone stumbled across it, and the studio pulled it out and offered it for sale. Greene cut a deal with the purchaser to write the present book — which is actually more of a novella, being only 120 pages or so. Not a great piece of work, but there’s some good stuff here. It will certainly hold your attention.

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Published in: on 23 May 2011 at 6:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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