Gettng to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement


223 pages
ISBN 0-88619-076-2




Reviewed by Alexander Craig

Alexander Craig is a freelance journalist in Lennoxville, Quebec.


In what has to be a modern minor masterpiece of punning, Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, refers to Graham Greene as Grim Grin. Less imaginative critics refer to the exotic terrains, geographical and mental, about which Greene writes as “Greeneland.”

Both witticisms are made at some cost to accuracy. The latter is unable to be geographically correct, for nearly all of Greene’s exotic locations are warm and tropical. And even the “Eye’s” inspired nickname overlooks the fact that much of Greene, particularly his more recent work, is genial more than it is grim. This particular, and peculiar, work, a sort of eightieth birthday present to himself, recounts his visits over a five-year period to Panama, as the guest of that country’s then president, the populist General Torrijos.

This was the time of the Canal Treaty with the United States, so Greene pokes some good-natured fun at U.S. politicians and attacks, rather less genially, some of Latin America’s worst military dictators, such as Pinochet and Stroessner.

On the whole, however, the book is much more personal than political. Greene doesn’t spend enough time showing us why he regarded Torrijos so highly, but his crisp and jaunty accounts of his travels in Panama and elsewhere in Central America with his colorful security guard, Chuchu, give the reader a hint of the flavour of these trips which so captivated the writer.

Greene also gives some insight into how he observes and thinks about writing. The main value of this book for most readers, then, will probably be for those who appreciate Greene’s provocative generalizations, his telling phrases, his keen sense of observation, and, above all, that grim, but genial, grin. Archbishop McGrath, the Canadian primate of Panama, for instance, struck Greene “as one of those agreeable ecclesiastics whose tone of voice never varies and who knows in advance exactly how much and how little he wants to impart.”


Greene, Graham, “Gettng to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,