I just finished an excellent book on Algeria by Ted Morgan, entitled My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir. Gloria Emerson selected an evocative cover for her book: Albert Marquet's 1932 painting "The Bay of Algiers" which captures some of the beauty of this very troubled land. I read Emerson's work the first time, shortly after it was published in 2000. Seemingly continued to be drawn to this land, which is not "on the radar" of most Americans, I decided to give Emerson's work a re-read.
And I am much more impressed the second time around. The protagonist is Molly Benson, a "trust-fund" baby (of 40 plus years of age), living in Princeton, NJ, who denies herself many material advantages in order to be politically active, supporting an assortment of relatively obscure global causes, of the Good vs. Evil variety. As the title indicates, she is deeply attached to Graham Greene, whom she met once, and visited, in his home in Antibes. Of course she has read all his works, and they are referenced throughout her novel... so much so, that I have been stimulated to read some of the ones that I have neglected before. Benson and Greene do correspond; she serves as a "clipping service" for reviews of his works. More than a bit of "hero worship," she routinely asks herself the question: What would Graham Greene do?
In Morgan's book on Algeria, he describes how his father was killed during World War II. It wasn't the heroic circumstances that people originally reported (and no doubt preferred to believe), but was the result of a stupid accident (their plane ran out of fuel, and crashed). Likewise, in Emerson's work, she relates how Molly went to El Salvador, in the `80's, during the era of the "death squads" to pick up her brother's (Harry) body, a journalist who may have died "for the cause," or, maybe not. Emerson seems to have brilliantly captured the pathos of those who refuse to do nothing when confronted with so much that is wrong in the world, yet undertake highly improbable and ineffectual actions with the following: Molly maneuvers her way into a building in NYC where an El Salvador diplomat lives, with a can of white paint. She will dip her hand into the can, and leave a white handprint on the door, as the "death squads" do in his country... yet his door is cream-colored, so the handprint barely shows up.
Greene dies in 1991; seemingly in his honor Molly undertakes an even more unlikely intervention than Latin America; Algeria. Though she knows virtually nothing about the country, she does know more than most Americans. 1991 was the year the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) (Islamic Salvation Front) won the election, yet the ruling party, (FLN) refused to allow them to take power (technically, hold the confirming second election). This commenced the very bloody and equally savage Algerian Civil War, lasting 10 years, and leaving 40,000 to 200,000 dead. Into this morass, Molly stumbles, literally, since her shoes are full of $100 bills, in order to buy "body-guards" for Algerian writers and journalists who may be the target of the FIS. She is accompanied by her long-term girlfriend, and an ineffectual, academic British male "escort." Like Americans who go to Paris, and want to see the Bastille, they are in the Casbah, looking for the house (and corresponding memorial) where Ali La Pointe was killed.
Then, suddenly, "it clicked," and regrettably, it took me the second time around to "get it." Wasn't this one of Graham Greene's central points in The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition), which I've read three times since it explained so much about Vietnam? Highly educated Alden Pyle, his head full of academic theories, working for the CIA, in Saigon, oblivious to the reality before him, causing so much harm. Likewise, Molly, and her two well-intentioned friends, blundering through the landscape of Algiers. As the British academic asks, concerning another Graham Greene story, "The Lottery Ticket": "Do you think we have been like Mr. Thriplow in Graham Greene story, meaning so well and causing such grief?"
Emerson took her own life in 2004 rather than succumb to the increasingly debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. She knew a thing or two about how the world works, and is missed. 5-stars for this effort, the second time around.