On the far side of the great, muddy river that separates the two countries lies Paraguay, a brutal dictatorship shaken by sporadic revolutionary activity; on the near side, a torpid city whose only visible cultural institution is a brothel. The foreigners of the city are refugees, each washed up on the banks of the Paraná by some inner disaster or defeat: Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician, whose English father has vanished into a Paraguayan prison, and for whom "caring is the only dangerous thing"; Humphries, a teacher of English, who has touched bottom and accepted it; Charley Fortnum, the Honorary Consul, who at the age of sixty-one, sustained by drink and his disputed status as British Consul, still retains enough hope and illusion to marry a twenty-year-old girl from Señora Sanchez' brothel...
With gathering force, Graham Greene draws his characters into the political chaos that lies beneath the surface of South American life. Fortnum is kidnapped by Paraguayan revolutionaries who have mistaken him for the American Ambassador. Realizing their error, they threaten to execute him anyway if their demands are not met. Plarr, torn between his instinctive feeling for the revolutionaries -- one of whom is an old friend -- and his ambiguous relationship with Fortnum, whose wife he has taken as a lover, becomes involved in a tragicomedy that leads inexorably to a meaningless death.
At the center of The Honorary Consul is Plarr, a brilliant Graham Greene creation, perhaps the most moving and convincing figure in his fiction. Plarr is a man so cut off from human feeling, so puzzled by the emotional needs of men like Fortnum, that he is paradoxically vulnerable, chillingly exposed, and required in the end to pay with his life for the illusions that other people believe in and that he himself cannot share.
In the men and women who surround Plarr -- Clara, who has moved from the brothel to Charley Fortnum's bedroom; Father Rivas, the revolutionary priest who dominates those near him, despite his unsanctified marriage and belief in political terror; Saavedra, the Argentinean novelist, whose work lugubriously mirrors the world around him; Aquino, the poet-turned-revolutionary; Colonel Perez, the cheerfully efficient chief of police -- Graham Greene has created a world peculiarly his own. It is a world illuminated by that special passion for the complexities of love, faith, compassion, and betrayal that lies at the very heart of his work.