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The Ministry Of Fear (2005)

The Ministry of Fear (2005)
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Rating
3.82 of 5 Votes: 1
ISBN
0143039113 (ISBN13: 9780143039112)
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English
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penguin classics
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The Ministry Of Fear (2005)
The Ministry Of Fear (2005)

About book: ”Ah, he thought, Tolstoy should have lived in a small country--not in Russia, which was a continent rather than a country. And why does he write as if the worst thing we can do to our fellowman is kill him? Everybody has to die and everybody fears death, but when we kill a man we save him from his fear which would otherwise grow year by year...One doesn’t necessarily kill because one hates: one may kill because one loves...and again the old dizziness came back as though he had been struck over the heart.” Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds star in the 1944 movie of Ministry of Fear.Arthur Rowe is a murderer. ”A murderer is regarded by the conventional world as something almost monstrous, but a murderer to himself is only an ordinary man--a man who takes either tea or coffee for breakfast, a man who likes a good book and perhaps reads biography rather than fiction, a man who at a regular hour goes to bed, who tries to develop good physical habits but possibly suffers from constipation, who prefers either dogs or cats and has certain views about politics.”A murderer could be someone sitting next to you on the subway. It could be the man with the heavy jowls looking like an accountant, innocuous, boring, with blunt fingers and deceptively more power in those slumped shoulders than you might first believe. Or how about the woman sitting next to the Asian couple with the clicking knitting needles, flashing like swords even in the muted light, looking like an aging Kathleen Turner with crisp blue eyes that would hold your gaze as she slipped one of those needles under your ribcage and shoved it upward seeking your heart. Then, there is the youth hiding behind the Oakland Raiders hat and the wrap around sunglasses with the trashy underage girlfriend, her eyes as old as Egypt, twinned around his arm. He doesn’t weigh a buck twenty, not a threat to a grown man except that bulge under his jacket, the Sam Colt descendent, the great equalizer, can kill a better man, a bigger man, a more powerful man with just one jerk of the trigger. Let’s set that aside for a moment. “Tiger, darling,” Graham Greene’s wife used to say whenever she found a florid metaphor—and out it would go. His rival and fellow Catholic, Anthony Burgess, said that Greene sought in his writing “a kind of verbal transparency which refuses to allow language to become a character in its own right”. His voice is the driest of any great writer, drier than bone. From an article by Nicholas Shakespeare.It all begins with Arthur Rowe deciding at the spur of the moment that he will attend a charity bazaar. It reminds him of tender memories of his youth. He guesses the weight of a cake, with real eggs, and doesn’t win. He gets his fortune told, and in the uncertain light he is mistaken for someone else, and the teller of fortunes plucks the thread of Rowe’s own destiny by giving him the “correct weight” for the cake. He wins the cake. This is during the Blitz. ”’I didn’t imagine war was like this,’ staring out at desolation. Jerusalem must have looked something like this in the mind’s eye of Christ when he wept….”The Blitz was a good time to settle scores, an amazing opportunity to get away with murder, as people are being killed every day by bombs dropping from the sky and landmines. Food is scarce, and there are people that will kill for a cake with real eggs, but this cake is of interest to certain parties because of something else besides eggs in the batter. Arthur Rowe has been caught up in something sinister. There are people trying to kill him.Graham Greene, I see you lurking between sentences, peering around the edges of paragraphs, pressed up, in the shadows, at the spine of the book. Hey you, the guy lurking over there in the corner, come on into the room enter the frame.Arthur Rowe launches his own investigation. He can’t go to the police because he doesn’t have a clue what to tell them. He hires a detective agency to help him try to discover who is trying to kill him. He meets a girl and her brother, twins, who offer to help him. He is accused of murder, which has the police after him as well as the killers. Rowe’s own past dogs him with every step. ”A murderer is rather like a peer: he pays more because of his title. One tries to travel incognito, but it usually comes out….”He will be, for the rest of his life, on trial.He is betrayed.He is blown up.He is incarcerated in an assisted living facility with his memories jumbled and missing. He pines for Dickens, whom he used to read over and over like other people read the Bible. He does have access to a book of Tolstoy, but finds little comfort there. (Books mentioned in books are always a comfort to me as if the author is giving me a wink of reassurance.) The investigative part of Rowe’s mind that was so essential to sinking him deeper into this nefarious plot is alive and well. He soon discovers that he is being held rather than being assisted. He escapes, reluctantly.”He put his hands on the dressing-table and held to it; he said to himself over and over again, ‘I must stand up, I must stand up.’ as though there were some healing virtue in simply remaining on his feet while his brain reeled with the horror of returning life.”Things have changed in the two months he has been someone else. Not all of his memories have returned so he is not even a complete Arthur Rowe yet. The Twins, remember the twins, well they are not who he thought they were either. He remembers his wife. He remembers what he has done. He sees it in everyone’s faces. ”He wants to warn them --don’t pity me. Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around.” Wonderful still shot from the 1944 movie starring Marjorie Reynolds directed by Fritz Lang.This is Graham Greene at his best with a convoluted plot, with key elements hidden from us, and a host of characters impossible to trust. He puts us in the skin of Arthur Rowe, knowing only what he knows, which leaves us as bewildered as the main character. Greene plays on my own fears of being incarcerated without my own memories to defend myself, and yet, knowing full well that I’m not who they say I am. There is definitely a bit of Franz Kafka at play here. This book was published in 1943 during a time when all of England had been thrust into the war. Women and children are now at risk as much as a frontline soldier, with death whistling in everyone’s ears as it falls from the sky on a daily basis. Like the plot of many episodes of Foyle’s War, one man’s troubles during such a time do not receive the same attention they would have been given before the war, but when it is discovered that the most dear secrets of England are in the wind, Rowe knows he can’t afford to fail. He is an unlikely hero who finds the courage to muster the shattered pieces of himself and help save a nation. Highly Recommended!!

ministryoffearRead for the #GreeneforGran reading tribute, only my third Graham Greene novel ever and my second read for #GreenforGran. I read Stamboul Train earlier this month, which I also enjoyed. This novel is one of Graham Greene’s thriller style novels rather than one of the more literary offerings. I am now quite keen to read some of those novels which are considered among his best. I have certainly found that I enjoy his style of writing.The Ministry of Fear is a quick enthralling read –and although possibly not a masterly work, I was immediately hooked. It is a spy story although the plot isn’t too complex, in fact there were moments when I thought aspects of the plot were left a little too obscure. There is as deliciously sinister atmosphere to the novel which helps drive the action. Written and published during the Second World War, The Ministry of Fear is set during the London blitz of bombed out buildings and underground shelters. In fact I think it is in atmosphere that Greene is really quite brilliant, as the novel opens there is a fragile innocence about the central character Arthur Rowe, as he remembers the fetes of his childhood, an innocence that is soon replaced by a darker reality. “Rowe was exhausted and frightened; he had made tracks half across London while the nightly raid got under way. It was an empty London with only occasional bursts of noise and activity. An umbrella shop was burning at the corner of Oxford Street; in Wardour Street he walked through a cloud of grit: a man with a grey dusty face leant against a wall and laughed and a warden said sharply, ‘That’s enough now. It’s nothing to laugh about.’ None of these things mattered. They were like something written; they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention. But he had to find a bed, and so somewhere south of the river he obeyed Hilfe’s advice and at last went underground’Arthur Rowe is a middle aged man who we soon learn is haunted by his mercy killing of his beloved wife Alice years earlier. Arthur has served a short sentence at the hands of the judiciary in some kind of hospital, but Arthur seems unable to forgive himself. As the novel opens Arthur wanders into a small charity fete that he happens across in a London square, here he purchases a book he remembers from childhood, guesses the weight of the cake and goes to have his fortune told. When Arthur wins the cake “made with real eggs” no less – he is immediately aware of some rather odd behaviour among the few remaining people at the fete. From here on, Arthur is a hunted man. Back in his sad rented room, Arthur receives a visit from a stranger, a man who receives a piece of cake from Arthur and sits crumbling it in his fingers, while Arthur sips at the tea he has made aware of it having a rather odd flavour, a flavour he remembers from years before. The bomb that then falls, destroying both the house where Arthur lives and the cake, probably saves his life, but from now on Arthur Rowe is on the run. The action takes Arthur to a private inquiry agency, a peculiar séance, and a private asylum, resulting in a bout of amnesia and an unlikely romance. “There are dreams which belong only partly in the unconscious; these are the dreams we remember on waking so vividly that we deliberately continue them, and so fall asleep again and wake and sleep and the dream goes on without interruption, with a thread of logic the pure dream doesn’t possess.”Drawn into this strange and frightening world that Arthur has unwittingly found himself a part of are an Austrian brother and sister, a private detective and a psychiatric nurse at a private hospital. The mysterious organisation that is pursuing Arthur remains something of a mystery, even to the reader. Maybe the who – doesn’t entirely matter – the “they” are the baddies – and Arthur is the “goodie” There is an irony to this of course as Arthur is already a killer, we know he killed the woman he loved best in the world, and there exists the constant question of whether Arthur’s killing was a mercy to her or to himself. Neither Arthur nor the reader are entirely sure of who anyone is. Greene creates a wonderfully surreal dreamlike quality to some of Arthur’s encounters which suit this thriller of wartime secrets and dangerous affiliations. In the second part of the novel – of which I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers – things becomes wonderfully disorienting – this was really unexpected but serves as a means for Greene to explore memory, and how Rowe’s view of himself is determined by his memory (as is our own perhaps). Memory and the past is a constant motif in this novel – which while it may not be a major literary work, is rather more than just another wartime spy novel.I found this to be a very readable and compelling novel, and I am sure that I will be reading more Graham Greene in the future. This lovely reading tribute, #GreeneforGran has served to raise the profile of this writer for me, reminding me of novels I had somewhere at the back of my mind meant to read one day.
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Reviews
Jim
This is one of Greene’s “entertainments”. When I first started reading it the author who came to mind was Kafka but as I got into the book I started to think this was more like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or even more like John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps all of which have two things in common: firstly, an ‘innocent’ gets caught up in a world he had no idea he existed that runs parallel with his own and secondly, he has to embark on an ‘adventure’ to clear his name when he’s wrongly accused of something. If Greene’s book has one overriding fault—and it can do nothing about this since it was written in 1943—it is dated but if you accept that going in there’s a lot to enjoy here. At one point Greene’s protagonist refers to what he’s going though as a “cardboard adventure” and that’s a good a description as any; there is a definite two-dimensionality to most of the characters apart from the lead, Arthur Rowe, who’s a novel choice as protagonist because he’s a euthanasist; he poisoned his wife and spent time in prison for his crime:When he came out of what wasn't called a prison, when His Majesty's pleasure had formally and quickly run its course, it had seemed to Rowe that he had emerged into quite a different world—a secret world of assumed names, of knowing nobody, of avoiding faces, of men who leave a bar unobtrusively when other people enter. One lived where least questions were asked, in furnished rooms. It was the kind of world that people who attended garden fêtes, who went to Matins, who spent week-ends in the country and played bridge for low stakes and had an account at a good grocer's, knew nothing about. And yet that’s where the story opens up, with our hero-to-be wandering around a fête:The fête called him like innocence: it was entangled in childhood, with vicarage gardens and girls in white summer frocksThere’s not much to see and what there is is disappointing: he buys a book that holds some childhood association (The Little Duke by Charlotte Mary Yonge), enters a raffle for a cake—a real cake make with eggs (this is wartime remember)—and has his fortune told. The woman, one Mrs Bellairs, says, "First the character, then the past: by law I am not allowed to tell the future,” but Rowe insists. Her response is unexpected:Mrs Bellairs said, "My instructions are these. What you want is the cake. You must give the weight as four pounds eight and a half ounces.""Is that the right weight?""That's immaterial." So he pays another sixpence and to his surprise wins the cake only to be challenged shortly after. The treasure-hunt lady tells him there’s been a mistake:She smiled with a sort of elderly impetuosity. "I must have the cake. You see — there's been a mistake. About the weight. It wasn't — what you said." She consulted a slip of paper. "That rude woman was right. The real weight was three pounds seven ounces. And that gentleman," she pointed towards the stall, "won it." Unfortunately for the gentleman Rowe’s original guess was closer than his and so Rowe refuses to part with the cake—less on general principles, more because good cake is hard to come by—and he heads back to London only to find himself being pursued. A new guest enters the boarding house where he stays and (Rowe thinks) tries to poison him once Rowe refuses to part with the cake. The only thing that saves him is an explosion as a bomb lands close to them. Needless to say the cake doesn’t survive but Rowe can’t let things go and determines to get to the bottom of things. And that was his big mistake because had he left well alone his life would’ve gone back to what passed for normal now. But, no:This was the passage he had crept up excited like a boy breaking a school rule; in the same passage, looking in through the open door, he grew up—learned that adventure didn't follow the literary pattern, that there weren't always happy endingsThere’s a definite feeling that Greene has his tongue firmly fixed in his cheek as he’s writing this. Each chapter is preceded by a quote from The Little Duke, a novel thick with political intrigue mostly read by children these days. Rowe mentions literary adventures several times: [N]one of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending. And none of them was disturbed by a sense of pity for the beaten side. The ruins from which they emerged were only a heroic back-cloth to his personal adventure; they had no more reality than the photographs in a propaganda album: the remains of an iron bedstead on the third floor of a smashed tenement only said, “They shall not pass…”What follows is a novel of intrigue. Very little is as it seems. No one can really be trusted. Besides because of his past Rowe has lost all his friends; he really does have no one to turn to when things start to go pear-shaped. Since much water’s passed under the bridge since the book was written the details when they come to light aren’t that surprising—it’s World War II, who do you think the baddies are going to be?—but what’s more interesting is what happens to Rowe along the way. As the result of a second explosion he loses his memory—a bit convenient plot wise—and so forgets what happened with his wife and so no longer thinks about himself as a murderer; he is, in effect, a new man, a happy man—as opposed to the very unhappy man we encounter at the start of the book—and the bad guys have it in their power to take all that way from him. It’s an unexpected dilemma. And I liked how Greene resolves it at the end.When I read about Greene’s “entertainments” I assumed they would be light (possibly trite) works and, yes, this is a thriller but it has surprising depth. Evelyn Waugh apparently singled out for praise the new coolly cinematic quality of his style and the simple fact is that The Ministry of Fear does at times read more like a novelisation of a film rather than the source material (the book was filmed quickly after publication, in 1944, with Ray Milland, playing the lead who I always thought was an American but it seems he’s Welsh.) Some nice writing for all that and there were several times I needed to consult my dictionary; not big words, just a few unfamiliar expressions.I gave up on Brighton Rock (another of his “entertainments”) some thirty years ago and’ve never read any Greene since. Might be time to move onto one of his literary novels.
Agnieszka
In Ministry of Fear Graham Greene , in disguise of noir thriller , delves favorite and crucial to his work themes . Responsibility for own actions , blame , sin , sense of guilt , duty , morality. Who is a bad man , condemned and pilloried by society merciful murderer of choice or maybe out of necessity ? Or maybe rather people acting in the name so called good of humanity and by the way not respecting an individual human life ? Is it wrong to relieve the suffering of terminally ill person ? Does a man have the right to shorten someone's life and anguish ? Does compassion , mercy , pity , love - call it as you want - give anyone the moral right to do such thing ? Can such wretch normally live after and forgive yourself ? don’t pity me. Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn’t safe when pity’s prowling around .Artur Rowe , tormented by guilt , wandering through the ravaged London on a strange impulse drops in the charity fair and wins a cake , the same getting oneself in the middle of the spy scandal . Entangled in terrifying and ridiculous events loses memory what paradoxically gives peace to him and makes him happy . Alienated , deprived of the past , unaware of the demons chasing him , falls in love . Unfortunately , the memory slowly returns , and Rowe himself has finally to decide whether to accept his painful past with all its consequences . Novel in a bit Kafkaesque tone has a claustrophobic and nightmarish atmosphere , what only deepens feeling of desolation . And , after reading , as my dear friend Mala said in her review you’ll never look at the cake the same way .
Tim
I got almost halfway through this before giving up on it. It is not that it was a bad book or poorly written, but I just couldn’t get into the mood of the story, and I found a couple of the narrative decisions a little irritating. The story takes place during the London blitz and attempts to recreate the crazed atmosphere of a city under attack, with death, destruction, and deceit popping up everywhere. Greene seems to find a kind of dark humor in this milieu, which I did have some appreciation for. The vagueness of the main character and the wild goose chase plot did not really do it for me, though.I realized at the book’s unique opening that I had seen an old movie version of the story. A man named Arthur Rowe goes to a shabby little fair and visits a fortune teller, who advises him what to say when guessing the weight of a cake in a contest. Rowe wins the cake, but people at the fair try to persuade him to give it back. He refuses, and brings it home. The next day an odd man shows up at his home with a serious interest in the cake. They sit down to eat the cake, but before they can discover what may be hidden inside it, a bomb hits. There follows a search for who was behind the mystery of the cake. Rowe, like other Greene heroes, is a man crippled with deep shame and self-doubt. We find out (rather late in the game) that he has something shameful in his past, and since then has endured a hermit-like existence. Then he finds himself in the middle of the blitz, without a home or money, trying to solve the mystery of the cake. There is little to like or even relate to in Arthur Rowe, beyond a forceful drive to survive and solve a mystery. Greene may have intended him to be bit of a cipher.Greene’s books tend to be either comic or serious, but in each there are elements of the other. His comedies can be brilliant and his serious books very powerful, but this one is neither, and for me it falls into the basket of his less successful serious books.
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