'Travels' is not a great novel, not even a great Graham Greene novel. It is flawed, mannered, contrived, old-fashioned, complacent; the work of a writer who has earned his laurels and is content to lounge on them. The frequent allusions to then-modish Latin American fiction (the novel ends up in Paraguay) only exposes its lack of adventurousness. Sometimes you wonder whether the maddening primness is the narrator's or the author's. Too often, Greene resorts to caricature rather than character, and even the splendid figure of Aunt Augusta feels like a writerly short-cut.
'Travels' is one of the most purely pleasurable books I have ever read, largely due to the perfectly captured narrative voice, a middle-aged virgin, retired bank manager and dahlia expert unwittingly thrown into a world of smuggling, soft drugs, hippies, war criminals, CIA operatives, military dictatorships, and whose decent, limited tolerance keeps the fantastic narrative believable, but also blinds him to genuine horrors.
The book contains some of Greene's funniest writing; if he'd written it 30 years earlier he's have called it an 'entertainment', those more generic or populist works that weren't overtly concerned with great moral themes. Today, these entertainments seem to have dated better than the 'serious' books.
Of course, 30 years on and Greene can relax his style - the plot is less vice-like, the words don't imprison - rather, they eloquently express a developing consciousness and sensibility. This is a story that proliferates with stories, some comic, some tragic, some parable-lie, all leading inexorably towards one untold story. Like all Greene's novels, 'Travels' concerns modern man's search for home, and the ending is devastating, mixing imagistic beauty with characteristically flat cynicism.