The Tenth Man

Tags:  general fiction,

The Tenth Man opens in a German prison near the end of World War II. Thirty or so Frenchmen, civilian prisoners of war from all walks of life, are packed together in a dingy cell. Cut off from the outside world, and with nothing to do, they hang on to an old watch and an alarm clock, reminders of order in a world that has fallen into chaos, while they glumly await the war’s end.

The Tenth Man, by Graham Greene

The only information they can glean from the outside world is the noise they can hear through the prison wall. Though they’re in German-occupied territory, behind the lines, every now and then they hear a grenade or a burst of gunfire.

After one such event, a prison officer enters the cell and to inform the inmates that the latest round of gunfire has killed two Germans. In retaliation, the Germans will execute one out of every ten men in the cell. Of the thirty prisoners, three will have to die by gunfire in the morning. The officer tells them to choose among themselves who will go.

The prisoners decide to draw lots from a shoe. Three of the folded slips of paper are marked for death. The rest are clean. Jean-Louis Chavel, a wealthy lawyer from the Paris suburbs, draws one of the marked slips. In a panic, he offers his home, his land, and his entire fortune to anyone willing to take his place in front of the firing squad.

Michel “Janvier” Mangeot, a young man from a poor family in Paris, takes him up on the offer. He asks Chavel to write a formal will granting everything to him, and he in turn, knowing he’ll be dead in a few hours, deeds it all to his mother and sister.

Janvier’s reasons that the Germans have been arbitrarily executing prisoners ever since he got locked up. Because there’s no end to the war in sight, all thirty men in the cell will eventually be executed. He may as well go now leave his family something to live on.

Turns out, the end of the was was closer than people thought. Chavel soon finds himself back in Paris, wandering homeless in his shabby lawyer’s suit and worn-out shoes. He wanders through some of his old haunts, including his favorite restaurant, only to find that the war has changed Paris irrevocably, and that without money, he is not so welcome in his old world.

He can’t resist a visit to the home he signed away to Janvier. It had been passed down through many generations. He finds the garden overgrown, the driveway blocked by a fallen tree, little signs of decay everywhere. He rings the bell and recognizes by the family resemblance that the young woman who answers the door is Javier’s sister, Therese.

At this time, after the liberation of Paris and before the fall of Germany, displaced people are everywhere and food is scarce. Seeing Chavel’s shabby clothes, Therese takes him for a beggar and offers him food.

Chavel, by the way, lied to the German officials when he was arrested, telling them his name was Charlot. They released him with identity papers naming him as Jean-Louis Charlot, and these papers are generally accepted as valid.

Therese offers Chavel/Charlot a job as servant in his own home. With nowhere else to go, he takes it. Keep in mind that no one knows he’s Chavel. They all know him as Charlot.

Therese tells him how she got the house, and how she hates this Chavel fellow who was too cowardly to face his own death, instead sending her beloved brother to face a firing squad. She is sure Chavel will turn up one day, wanting to see what’s become of his old home. She assigns Charlot the job of watching and waiting for Chavel. When he appears, Charlot will notify her and she will spit in his face and kill him.

Now how’s that for a tense situation?

On top of it all, Chavel has to do the shopping in the nearby town where he grew up and where everyone knows him. He’s living on thin ice.

Being in his old home under a false identity, he’s constantly confronted with the past that he’s irrevocably lost. The line of continuity in the generations of family portraits has finally broken for good, as has an era of European history. The old world order is gone, not to return.

Therese speaks bitterly, almost obsessively, of her hatred for Chavel, not knowing she’s speaking to Chavel himself. She insults the portraits and photographs of the family, including Chavel’s mother, while Chavel must quietly bear her insults.

It’s interesting to note that while Therese passionately hates the image of Chavel she’s built in her imagination, she likes the man himself quite well. This may be an aspect of Greene’s commentary on the war itself. People made enemies of each other in their minds and then caused untold, unnecessary destruction.

Chavel is a study in moral failing. You can’t condone his actions, but neither does he deserve to be condemned as harshly as Therese condemns him.

The whole story takes place during a strange interlude in history, when an old order is in ruins and a new order has not yet arisen. Everyone is stripped of the trappings of the old social order. The lawyer, Chavel, no longer has his profession or his money to lean on. As Charlot, he’s nobody. When you strip people of their place in society, you’re left with raw emotional and moral beings, and these are the beings Greene likes to examine.

In a war in which everyone was trying to survive, some survived by decency and social bonding while others made it through as amoral opportunists, ready to betray anyone in order to live just one more day. In the last third of the book, one of these opportunists appears, a man outwardly charming and inwardly evil. Therese, in her youth and innocence, is susceptible to his guile. She can’t even conceive the depth of the threat he represents. Chavel sees right through him.

The question is, what will he do about it? I’ll leave that to you, the reader.

[Side note: Greene explored similar themes in the The Third Man, which also takes place at the end of World War II.]