Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene

This is the novel with which I christened my grey tweed wingback reading chair. If I'd splurged on the bitters (wildly and inexplicably expensive here in Malaysia), I could have sipped a pink gin alongside Greene's characters. It was nonetheless the perfect marriage of book and chair. The Heart of the Matter is one of Anthony Burgess' 99 best novels, and  Modern Library picked it as one of their top 100. It's now near the top of my own list, and it's one of those books that bears re-reading every decade or so.  (Next time, I'll have bitters on hand for the occasion.)

Although Greene never specifically identifies the setting, it stands to reason that the story takes place in Sierra Leone, where he served with the British Intelligence Corps during WWII.  Loitering vultures, diamond-smuggling Syrians and laconic Africans addressing the Brits as "Sah" are no doubt memories dusted off and put to good use.

I adored this novel from the very first paragraph:
Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. On the other side of Bond street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark-blue gym smocks engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.
I marvel at Greene's subtlety. One paragraph, and I was confident that I would come to despise Wilson.

The story's protagonist is police Major Henry Scobie. He's been in the colony for years and -- remarkably on both counts -- is content to stay there and has retained his reputation for  integrity, while others have succumbed to the endemic corruption.  Scobie's wife, Louise, however, is far from content, and when he is passed over for promotion to Commissioner, she takes it as a personal affront and humiliation. Going home is usually the most challenging part of Scobie's day.
People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person's habitual misery.
Just as his occasional mention of the vultures lurking about says volumes about the atmosphere in the west African town, Greene manages with startling economy to capture the depths of marital conflict.
"You don't love me." She spoke with calm. He knew that calm - it meant they had reached the quiet centre of the storm: always in this region at about this time they began to speak the truth at each other. The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being - it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.
Louise begs Scobie to send her to South Africa. She can't bear it there any more -- she has no friends and feels that everyone mocks her for her love of literature, with the exception of Wilson. Like Louise, Wilson loves poetry (though he keeps this secret well hidden), and shortly after meeting her, he concludes that he's in love with her. Louise pooh-poohs Wilson's attentions, brushing them aside as a boyish infatuation. Life may be wretched in the colony, but at some level, she deeply loves her Ticki (her pet name for her husband). This, the shallow Wilson cannot comprehend. Isn't love supposed to be joyful? It is in poems.
At the word books Wilson saw her mouth tighten just as a moment ago he had seen Scobie flinch at the name of Ticki, and for the first time he realized the pain inevitable in any human relationship - pain suffered and pain inflicted. How foolish one was to be afraid of loneliness.
Eventually, all other tactics to get the money to send Louise to South Africa having failed, Scobie resorts to asking Yusef, one of the two wheeling and dealing Syrians, for a loan. He opens the discussion by offering the businessman a drink. Yusef has a uniquely Arabic grace in maneuvering around what might be unpleasant topics.
"A little beer then, Major Scobie."
"The Prophet doesn't forbid it?"
"The Prophet had no experience of bottled beer or whisky, Major Scobie. We have to interpret his words in the modern light."
Having negotiated the loan, Scobie sees Louise off on the next southbound ship and goes home, eager for the one and only thing he so desperately wants:  peace.
It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with the rain falling, without love or pity...
...Leaning back against the dressing-table, he tried to pray. The Lord's Prayer lay as dead on his tongue as a legal document: it wasn't his daily bread that he wanted but so much more. He wanted happiness for others and solitude and peace for himself.
Scobie's solitude is interrupted, however, by the arrival of a group of British shipwreck survivors, including Helen Rolt, who was carried into the clinic on a stretcher clutching her stamp album as a small child might do.  Married only recently, she was an early widow, her husband having gone down with the ship. When she is well enough to leave the clinic, Helen is installed in a Nissen hut not far from Scobie's house. What began as a charitable and neighbourly gesture on his part quickly flares into a torrid affair. He is consumed equally with guilt and love, desperately trying to keep the thing under wraps.

He and Helen do their best to be nonchalant at a dinner party at which the conversation turns to the suicide of a young policeman in a nearby town. Finding the young man's body and his final note to his father had disturbed Scobie greatly, and the glib banter at the dinner table is no less distressing. Helen, sensing his agitation, tries to change the subject but fails.
"Are you a Catholic, Mrs Rolt?" Fellowes asked. "Of course they take very strong views."
"No, I'm not a Catholic."
"But they do, don't they, Scobie?"
"We are taught," Scobie said, "that it's the unforgivable sin."
"But do you really, seriously, Major Scobie," Dr Sykes asked, "believe in Hell?"
"Oh yes, I do."
"In flames and torment?"
"Perhaps not quite that. They tell us it may be a permanent sense of loss."
"That sort of Hell wouldn't worry me!" Fellowes said.
"Perhaps you've never lost anything of any importance," Scobie said.
As Scobie is struggling to manage his love for Helen and his tortured conscience, Louise telegraphs him to say she is on her way back. Not long after her return, Scobie contrives to end his own life in such a way that it looks like a natural death, convincing himself that he has already done irreparable harm to Louise, Helen and God, and all three would be better off without him.

After Scobie's death, Wilson calls on Louise, who, like most others in the colony, have seen through his guise as an accountant and have recognised him as an intelligence agent. She has gained little respect for his espionage skills and less still for his professions of love.
"I had no idea that he was so ill."
"Your spying didn't help you there, did it?"
"That was my job," Wilson said, "and I love you."
"How glibly you use that word, Wilson."
"You don't believe me?"
"I don't believe in anybody who says love, love, love. It means self, self, self."
In one final, vicious attempt to win Louise's admiration and to discredit Scobie, Wilson reveals evidence that the death was not from natural causes.

Clutching the diary with her late husband's intentionally misleading entries (pointed out to her by the "loving" Wilson), Louise presents evidence of Scobie's mortal sin and betrayal to Father Rank, the priest. She begins by asking if he was aware of the other grave sin -- the affair with Helen. What follows is possibly one of the best portrayals of pastoral compassion in English literature.
"I expect you know about Mrs Rolt. Most people did."
"Poor woman."
"I don't see why."
"I'm sorry for anyone happy and ignorant who gets mixed up in that way with one of us."
"He was a bad Catholic."
"That's the silliest phrase in common use," Father Rank said.
"And at the end this - horror. He must have known that he was damning himself."
"Yes, he knew that all right. He never had any trust in mercy - except for other people."
"It's no good even praying..."
Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, "For goodness' sake, Mrs Scobie, don't imagine you - or I - know a thing about God's mercy."
"The Church says ..."
"I know what the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart."


  1. What an entertaining and insightful review of Our Man in Sierra Leone! ;) I like this Yusef character already!

    1. Bottles! Who'd have thought they would make such a difference?? ;-)


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