One of the greatest British novelists of the 20th century, Graham Greene, is the subject of a new comic book by a French scenarist and a US artist. Translated from the French, the title of the just published book is Prague Coup with some of the key episodes focused on Greene’s short visit to Prague in February 1948 when the communist overthrow of the fragile post war government was underway.
Graham Greene had a reputation for often being at the right place at the right time. The right place usually being some unsettled part of the world which normal travellers would normally avoid and which would certainly be on a list of Foreign Office recommendations not to visit. Greene travelled in Sierra Leone before WWII, a trip which almost cost him his life. He was later in a turbulent Mexico in the 1930s, Indochina as the French were being forced to leave and the Americans readying themselves to take over, Cuba, and the long list could go on and on.
Vienna in the late 1940’s, like Berlin, was divided between the main Allied powers, and had a reputation for being a nest of spies. Greene turned up with just the basic idea for the film that a man sees a friend alive whom he thought was buried a few weeks earlier. Real events in Vienna and the black market sale of medicinal drugs allowed him to fill out that basic plot. Ostensibly, Greene’s Prague trip in February 1948 was to see his publisher. But Greene had a habit of turning up in troubled waters with an eye for material for a new book or film. He was clearly aware of speculation that the country was able to fall firmly into the Soviet bloc with the majority communist party in government seizing power.
"I allowed my imagination to work on some of the gaps in Greene’s itinerary that existed."
But Greene’s apparently well developed antenna did not appear to be working too well and he was largely underwhelmed at the lack of action around him. There were, however, the basic problems and discomforts of being in a trouble spot. Greene was holed up in the Ambassador Hotel on Prague’s Wenceslas Square and he found getting food was a particular challenge. In his autobiography, Ways of Escape, he recalled gate crashing a servants’ ball in the cellar of the hotel. He found he was not alone with the thought that the staff would probably have some food and drink reserves tucked away. Greene found the Venezuelan ambassador dancing with a fat cook, the band played, beer flowed, and the revolution did not seem so bad. Later, though he noticed the dark humour with which the events were greeted by some and the jokes about Communist leader Klement Gottwald’s fat and not very elegant wife.
French scenarist Jean-Luc Fromental has taken some liberty with the facts surrounding Greene’s Prague and Vienna visits at the start of 1948. In fact, while Greene is the main character of the comic book, Fromental says that the fruit of the author’s Vienna research, the plot for the iconic film, The Third Man by Carol Reed, is also a main focus for his book.
"In effect, it is the trip that Graham Greene made to Vienna and then to Prague in 1948 to do research on what was to become the great post war film noir, The Third Man. It was the period immediately after WWII when the Cold War was starting to take its final form. I allowed my imagination to work on some of the gaps in Greene’s itinerary that existed. It led me to reflect on Greene’s trip to Central Europe and the story line that could be developed. There is also the mysterious aspect of the film The Third Man. Long before I began to work on this book, it appeared to me to be a film with various different levels and hidden meanings. So there is the combination of interesting facts, which in some cases are extremely detailed as was the work of Greene when he was researching his film in Vienna, and on the other hand the gaps and holes in his itinerary which combine to create a specific story."
The comic book author adds that he also wanted to emphasise the mysterious aspects of the author himself, a Catholic convert whose novels and portrayal of the church got him into trouble with the Vatican, and Prague appeared to be the right backdrop for that as well.
"Prague, if you like, is like the scene in a Western where the final shoot out takes place."
"It was a week that Greene spent in Prague immediately after leaving Vienna. So the end of the spy story which I imagined in Vienna plays itself out in Prague. There was a fairly significant mystical aspect to Greene as well. He converted when he was fairly young from the Church of England to Catholicism, and I don’t think it was just for reasons of belief and the like but was also because I think it contributed to his career as a writer. I absolutely wanted to include that aspect, which is also present in a discrete way in the film The Third Man, into the story. Prague, it is the city of a thousand spires, and that formed a sort of sublime capital of images that could be used. There were many reasons that I did not want the scenario to be based just in Vienna, which was logical in a way as it was the place where he really did the film research, but to take advantage of this trip about which we know almost nothing – he wrote around three lines about it. His excuse that he was seeing his Catholic editor was very strange at a time when the city was in the midst of such upheaval. Prague, if you like, is like the scene in a Western where the final shoot out takes place. "
Indeed, in this comic book case the key closing scenes take place at St. Nicholas’s Church in Prague’s Malá Strana, the 17th Baroque masterpiece which is often described as the most expressive example of the architectural style in the Czech capital. This, according to Fromental, was ideal from the perspective of the US artist Miles Hyman and the comic book story plot as well.
"With its Baroque architecture and incredibly rich statues, this is not at all an austere church. And this was exactly what I needed for this culmination which is a bit like a Western show down and the final scene of an opera. It was perfect for me and I did a lot of research about St. Nicholas….When you are a story teller or scenarist you are looking for the sites that can magnify what is taking place. I gave this to Miles Hyman, who is a powerful artist, and I think what he made of it and the result was quite remarkable with the key scene taking place in the church at the conclusion of the book."
Perhaps, Fromental’s research also stumbled on a Cold War curiosity that St Nicholas’ church tower was used by the Czechoslovak secret police to spy on the US, Yugoslav and West German embassies situated in the same Prague district.
"When you are a story teller or scenarist you are looking for the sites that can magnify what is taking place."
The plot of the comic book portrays Graham Greene as being involved in undercover espionage work in Vienna and Prague as well as working on the script of the future film. In real life Greene worked for the British secret service during WWII before resigning in 1944 from his official post. There is a disputed story that Greene may have in some ways helped protect his friend, Kim Philby, later revealed as the greatest Soviet spy to have betrayed his country. Greene stayed loyal to Philby even after that revelation and Philby’s eventual defection to Moscow, coincidently after a brief stopover in Prague.