A Spot of Blackmail

Douglas Johnson

  • J’Accuse by Graham Greene
    Bodley Head, 69 pp, £1.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 370 30930 8

‘Hale knew, after he had been in Brighton for three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ The opening sentence of Graham Greene’s most famous novel runs, in menacing innuendo, through his pamphlet J’Accuse. He denounces the world of crime, injustice and corruption which constitutes ‘the dark side of Nice’, and he has let us know that, as he lives in the neighbourhood, at Antibes, he himself is now threatened by those whom he accuses. There have been mysterious phone-calls and an inexplicable burglary: he is said to carry a canister of gas with him in order to repel would-be assailants.

Thus Graham Greene lives in Graham Greeneland, and it is tempting to set this publication alongside his other works. As we read through it, phrases from the various novels come to mind; sentiments and thoughts are paralleled. This appears to be a somewhat rushed publication, but it is perhaps explained by the atmosphere of violence and menace which Greene has revealed and incited and which he now, naturally, fears (‘Men who are going to die are apt to become garrulous with self-revelations’). It is an intimate, private story, which arises from the misfortunes of the daughter of some old friends. They, in their frustration and fear, have turned to their famous acquaintance for his assistance and he has responded with determined generosity (‘He could seldom resist a call of distress however it was encoded’).

Martine Cloetta was married to Daniel Guy for some six years and they had a daughter. At first the marriage was successful, it did not seem to matter that little was known about Guy’s past and background and the first years were happy enough (‘To start off happy, Harris said, it must make an awful difference. Why it might become a habit’). Then the situation deteriorated, and Guy, who had already been involved in some strange happenings, became increasingly jealous and violent. When Martine was pregnant for the second time she became fearful for her safety and for that of her unborn child. She ‘went away’ and started divorce proceedings. It was then that she came into contact with the world of lawyers, policemen and judicial procedures and was brought face to face with the weakness of her position (‘He began to realise what the criminal class knows so well, the impossibility of explaining anything to a man with power’). It was not merely that her husband had a criminal record, as she discovered, or that he was involved with a kind of gangster world, or that he was prepared to stoop to anything crooked in order to fight her: ‘a little fraud, a little frame-up, a spot of blackmail’. Nor was it simply that he remained insanely jealous (‘I hadn’t realised how open the sexual wounds would remain over the years. When we are unhappy we hurt’). What distressed her most was his determination to take his daughter (and later the younger child) away from her. (‘Castle knew that the time had almost come when he would lose the child for ever. Each “all right” fell on the ear like the sound of distant explosions that were destroying the bridges between them.’) Greene himself, interviewing Daniel Guy, could not fathom the full extent of his hatred. Guy looked the Englishman in the eyes (‘He opened blue serene unshockable eyes’) and said: ‘You know, I’m a wall!’ (‘Wouldn’t we all do better not to try to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife a husband, a lover a mistress, nor a parent a child? Perhaps that’s why we have invented God – a being capable of understanding.’) And the subject of Greene’s complaint is that the system, worked by lawyers, judges and police (‘Here the police had the last word’), allows such a man to get away with his hatreds, violence and egoism, whilst Martine, as a mother and as an individual, is afforded neither justice nor protection.

All the characters are Greene characters. The lawyer who proposed an arrangement, which was in fact illegal, because he was frightened that if he fought the case he would lose it. The lawyer who was out of her depth and who gave up. The lawyer who was secretly in touch with Guy and who tried to persuade Martine to go with him to a private sex party (or partouze) where she would have been photographed and discredited (‘there the girl was on the threshold, in the glare of sun, caught with her mouth open, like someone surprised by a camera in a night-club, looking up in the flash, with an ungainly grimace of pain’). The policeman who had accepted bribes (‘Only his own heart-beats told him he was guilty – that he had joined the ranks of the corrupt police officers). And above all there is the system, the system which could veer into obstruction and mystery, so that criminals were protected and encouraged by guarantees of immunity as if this were the most natural thing in the world. (‘This is the moment I’ve always been expecting, the moment when we leave the law behind, push out for new shores. It seemed curiously unimportant.’)

It was said that Zola, when he took up the cause of Dreyfus, had dried up as a novelist and was looking for something to write about. Gide, when he wrote critically of Soviet Russia, was said to be smarting under Russian disapproval of his homosexuality. Mauriac, when he supported Moroccan nationalists, was said to be looking for another avenue of influence and fame, since he was no longer accepted by Catholics as their spokesman or mentor. It is sometimes said scathingly that within every successful novelist, there is an Emile Zola trying to get out.

But whatever the Mayor of Nice, Monsieur Jacques Médecin, may say, this is not the case with Greene. Although he has obviously seen himself in the same light as Zola, to judge by the title of his pamphlet and by references that are in the text, he has recounted a fait divers rather than a cause célèbre. There will be many who, whilst sympathising with Martine Cloetta and her family, will be inclined to shrug their shoulders at what is a fairly ordinary experience in the degrading circumstances of divorce, especially in France. It used to be quite normal in French law for there to be dossiers compiled by both parties. Daniel Guy, by bribery and violence, found witnesses to swear that Martine was guilty of adultery. It has frequently happened in divorces that charwomen, relatives or neighbours have testified that a marriage had been successful, whilst other employees, relatives and friends have asserted, in the appropriate legal form, that the same marriage had ceased. France is not the only country where the principles of justice can get lost in the interstices of procedure. The custody of children is a further device which one or other of the parties will often seek to exploit. A father may insist upon his right to have a small child for the periods which the court has designated as being his. Then he will let it be known, confidentially, that he has not the time (or the desire) to look after the child properly. The child itself may protest. The result frequently is that the mother will refuse to release her child as required. The father will then be able to register her failure to accept the authority of the court and she will be rebuked and fined and her cause will suffer. In French the word for ‘victim’ is always feminine.

These legal scandals happen every day. Everyone will recognise the predicaments and tribulations of the protagonists. Martine Cloetta’s case is one for Esther Rantzen rather than for Emile Zola. There is also another side to the case as presented by Graham Greene. If Martine abandoned the conjugal domicile, taking the child of the marriage with her, then she was legally at fault. If, in order to defend her father against an assault by her husband, she used a tear-gas canister, then she can, legally, be branded as dangerous and violent, however justified her reaction may seem to ordinary people. If Graham Greene uses his influence in Paris to activate Alain Peyrefitte, the Minister of Justice, on his friends’ behalf, then Daniel Guy, the small-time crook from Lyons, will be seen as the local boy who is being persecuted by the famous, the powerful and the Parisian. It is not difficult to imagine a lack of sympathy for Martine, the former TV announcer who, protected by her family and friends, is trying to remove two children from their father and to blacken his name.

It is hard not to believe that there are counter-arguments to those put forward by Greene in his pamphlet. The fact remains, however, that he has not just pleaded a case: he has denounced a region. The Mayor of Nice, he implies, is at the head of a corrupt society; and whilst the case of Martine Cloetta was his starting-point, Greene tells us that he has amassed many other dossiers which cast as much serious doubt on the functioning of justice as hers does. He advises British people not to go to live in the Nice area. He writes of the drug traffic, of the casino war (with which Daniel Guy seems to have been involved), of building scandals, of connections with the Italian Mafia. He does not speak of the scandals associated with Jacques Médecin’s private life; he mentions the Mayor’s boyhood friend, Jean-Dominique Fratoni, as the man who sought to control all the casinos and to turn Nice into a French Las Vegas, but does not refer to the successful runaway robber Spaggiari who has claimed acquaintance with Médecin, nor to the accusations of fiscal shortcomings which have been levelled at all the political élite of the Département. In other words, he does not push his case forward with the relentless zeal one might have expected.

It is certain that crime in the South of France has increased and is increasing. As in other countries, the demand for drugs, prostitutes and pornography has created problems for the administration of justice. The police are heavily involved with the complexities of stup, proxo, putes, pédés, julots, macs, masos. The whole world wishes to live on the Côte d’Azur, and there are fortunes to be picked up in land and building speculation and in the working of municipal patronage and planning. Violence in the big towns has led to the creation of a special council, presided over by the Mayor of Toulon, which represents the 25 most important towns of France. Immigration, international terrorism, refugees and the arms trade have all taken their toll. In the South of France, as elsewhere, the police have come to rely increasingly on contacts with the milieu and on informers, with the result that complicity has inevitably arisen between them and the criminal classes, a complicity which has its parallel amongst both lawyers and municipal officers.

And in the South of France there is an additional element. There is politics. Within a short time of Mitterrand becoming President, it was discovered that a whole family had been killed in Auriol, in the Bouches-du-Rhône, and it has since become clear that this was the work of the Service d’Action Civique, the SAC, a sort of parallel police force which was formed in the early days of the Fifth Republic and which was heavily involved in the Algerian imbroglio. Investigations which followed a right-wing terrorist outrage at Bologna railway station in Italy suggested that some of the Nice police force looked favourably on fascism and fascists. The mysterious suicide, if it was a suicide, of a highly-politicised, anti-Socialist social security official in Marseilles, who was in charge of a caisse which received and distributed vast sums of money, has led to revelations concerning his friendship with suspect Corsican families. It seems clear that the 23 long years of Gaullist-Giscardian power allowed whole networks to be constructed within which there are profitable associations and essential protections. Those outside them are at a crippling disadvantage. It is clear that Daniel Guy, as a former member of the Organisation de l’Armee Secrète, the Algerian secret army that sought to protect the interests of European settlers and which later adapted its activities to a France that had abandoned Algeria, is a small part of this machinery. This explains his power (and it probably explains his sudden wealth). Graham Greene has here revealed a small part of a vast scandal.

He has followed George Orwell’s precept, that a writer who takes part in a political activity should do so as a citizen, not as a writer. What he has written is a pamphlet, not a novel, still less an ‘entertainment’: but that he should have written it isn’t in any way surprising. Doubtless all his actions, and this record of them, have been caused by his sympathy for the unhappy Martine. Sympathy, or pity. ‘He couldn’t describe the restlessness, the haunting images, the terrible impotent feeling of responsibility and pity’: the phrase from The Heart of the Matter runs through the whole pamphlet.