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.
This book, set in London in 1941 during the blitz, begins with a man on the outs, Arthur Rowe, strolling through a church fair fundraiser. He plays a few penny games, then has his fortune told. By a stroke of bad luck, he utters the wrong words to the fortune-teller. In exchange, she tells him the weight of the cake in a nearby stall. Whoever guesses the weight correctly, wins it, which is a big deal, because it’s made with real eggs, which are a prized rarity in wartime London.
I’ve read many of Greene’s books, and this is the most powerful and intense of the lot. The book follows the travels of a priest on the run from a communist regime that has sworn to abolish religion, and has got rid of every priest in the state, either by execution or by forcing them to marry. The “whiskey priest” is the last in the state. He’s been on the run for years and is wearing down.
This one starts off a little slowly, and as I reached the end of the first chapter, I started to think it might be the first Graham Greene novel I wasn’t going to like. I’m glad I stuck with it. This book builds quietly and subtly, and in the end has tremendous power, portraying tragedy on the scale of both the individual and the nation. The title, “The Comedians,” refers to the role the characters Brown and Jones see themselves playing in a world gone awry, in which they can depend on nothing.
1 of 1