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Three days with Graham Greene

By Jean-Christophe RUFIN Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi

I observed him: He looked to be in his 80s, with an emaciated face and a few strands of hair combed back on his head. He was extremely pale and there were purple bags under his eyes. He spoke good French, with a thick English accent. He reminded me of someone. But who?
“Are you going to explain to me now…?”

I had turned off the air conditioning for the night. Hanoi’s damp heat had thus seeped little by little into my room. I was sweating, but my visitor’s skin remained dry.
“Graham Greene,” he said.
Grimacing, he took a sip of tea.
“Yes,” I said, “this is indeed the Graham Greene suite. On the floor above, there’s the Somerset Maugham suite, and I think there’s a Charlie Chaplin suite somewhere, too.”
The man shrugged.
“Ridiculous,” he mumbled. “In any case, I’m Graham Greene.”

 

Finally, at that moment, as he fixed me with his pale eyes, I understood. I got up and went to get the photograph hanging on the wall near the bedroom door. It showed a man in his 40s, staring straight at the camera, not smiling. Below the photo it said:
Graham Greene, 1904-1991. Sitting down, I put the portrait on my knees and looked at the man. The eyes were the same and the face was basically the same, although time had carved wrinkles that rendered it virtually unrecognizable.
“1991…” I murmured.
“Yes,” my guest sighed, loosening the belt of his trench coat. “I’ve been dead for 21 years. Is that what you mean?”
How could I respond to such a question? And anyway, was it a question? He came to my aid.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to refuse your tea, but I don’t really care for this beverage. Would you happen to have a good whisky?” Because I hesitated, he added:
“Or a bad one, for that matter.”

 

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