20 JANUARY 1961, Page 20


Our Men in Africa

By DON AT O'DONNELL Doctor Colin examined the record of the man's tests—for six months now the search for the leprosy bacilli in smears taken from the skin had shown a negative result. The African who stood before him with a staff under his shoulder had lost all his toes and fingers. Doctor Colin said, `Excellent. You are cured:* QDERRY, the great architect who comes to live in the leper colony, feels himself to be, like the African, cured and mutilated. The nature of his disease is mysterious. He himself sometimes identifies it with Catholicism, and is dismayed when he finds priests and nuns at the leper colony : 'He blamed himself for not realising that the area of leprosy was also the area of this other sickness.' At another level he thinks of his disease as having been self-expression which 'eats every- thing, even the self.' Religion and self-expression were indeed part of the one disease, for Qu..Try had been a religious architect, who lost his faith and his art, his love and his vocation. To Marie Rycker, a planter's wife who persuades herself that she loves him, he tells a fable of a master jeweller who

had believed quite sincerely that when he loved his work he was loving the King and that when he made love to a womlin he was at least imitat- ing in a faulty way the King's love for his people. . . . But when he discovered there was no such King as the one he had believed in, he realised too that anything he had ever done must have been done for love of himself.

At the same time the jeweller wonders, as the architect clearly does also, whether this unbelief is not really a proof of the King's existence. This would mean that the 'cure,' like the mutilation— the end of sex and of vocation, was simply another phase of the disease.

At the leper colony two stupid men, a spoiled priest and a priest, take Querry for a saint. Al- though both are disillusioned—the spoiled priest Rycker finally kills Querry, in the mistaken belief that he is Marie Rycker's lover—a reader might be left with the impression that they had been right originally. Father Thomas, who suggests that

• Querry has been granted 'the grace of aridity' and is 'walking in the steps of St. John of the Cross, the noche oscura,' is represented as a fool, and Querry rejects his interpretation. Yet the interpre- tation fits well enough the jeweller-architect's own conception of unbelief as a proof of the King's existence. A much more perceptive observer than Father Thomas, Dr. Colin—who bears a strong family resemblance to the hero of Camus's La Peste—finally pronounces Querry 'cured.' He diagnosed the disease, not as Querry had done in terms of religion and self-expression, but as 'a form of frigidity,' going through 'the motions of love.' He was cured of this through learning `to serve other people and to laugh.' (His laughter, indeed; was the immediate cause of his death, since Rycker imagined that Querry was laughing at him; there is a distant scent df martyrdom.) Although Dr. Colin, as an atheist, rejects the idea * A Buarrr-Our CASE. By Graham Greene. (Heinemann, 16s.)

that Querry had recovered his faith, the wise and gentle Father Superior reminds him of Pascal's saying, that a man who starts looking for God has already found Him.

There are differences between Querry and Scobie, between Marie Rycker and Helen Rolt, between Wilson and Rycker, between the Father Superior and Father Rank, between the devoted boy Ali, who is killed by Scobie, and the devoted boy Deo Gratias, who is saved by Querry. There are even some differences, though not very many, between the West African colony of The Heart of the Matter and the Congo of A Burnt-Out Case. The two novels are, however, very much alike, not only in characters, setting and structure— both Are very short novels with a strange pro- liferation of parts and chapters—but above all in their central theme, the progress of an ambiguous pilgrim. Does he in fact progress, or is he stand- ing still in a complicated posture to which clever lighting imparts an illusion of movement? Is he a pilgrim, or a conjurer? Is his ambiguity a device to conceal a lack of meaning under a plurality of possible interpretations? The answers to these questions, in the order given, are, I believe, 'standing still,' conjuree and 'a device.'

Standing still. There is certainly an apparent progress from Scobie to Querry. Scobie was a mechanism, seeking objects of pity as certain missiles arc said to seek heat, and with much the same results. Querry has some human attri- butes, including intelligence. Scobie could never have analysed his failure as a policeman as Querry analyses his failure as an architect and lover. Querry also moves in a more convincing way; he is not forced, like the unfortunate Scobie, through a succession of improbable theological hoops. There is nothing improbable in his actions, yet he himself remains theoretical, like Scobie: a set of propositions clipped together with manner- isms and bundled, more expertly now, towards a predictably ambiguous conclusion. The standard of play has improved; the game remains a game. It is much the same game that we follow with delight in Mr. Greene's 'entertainments,' but with a rather more complicated code of rules, and a higher proportion of snakes to ladders. Querry and Scobie are counters in such a game: our men in Africa.

A conjurer. The patter is first-class, the aud- ience is put in its place:

'Of course she loves him, he's her husband.' `Love isn't one of the commonest character- istics of marriage, father.' 'They're both Catholics.' 'Nor is it of Catholics.'

Very well, better than patter; this magician can tell fortunes, is often frightening. As often, the conversation itself is much more interesting than the illusion which it is intended to foster, and also than the deft movements which it masks. Yet why should we say that Querry, more than any other fictional hero, is an illusion, or that the plot of A Burnt-Out Case, more than other fictional plots, is a trick? Mr. Greene himself provides a large part of the answer in his preface-dedication, where he says that the novel is 'an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief and non-belief in the kind of setting. removed from world politics and household- preoccupations, where such differences are felt acutely and find expression.' This discrete setting is in the Congo, and if the newspaper-reader jibs at such a description of the Congo he is told, 'This Congo is a region of the mind.' It is not surprising that we scarcely believe in Querry, himself a dramatic expression of some kind of belief, half- belief or non-belief, or in his relation to this care- fully painted back-drop called the Congo.

A device. The ambiguity and the severance from reality are perhaps allied, and both devices to the same end. People involved in 'household preoccupations' and—whether they like it or not —in politics may not feel differences of belief 'acutely,' but if the differences are important they will surely find expression, and often unambigu- ous expression, in the preoccupations and in the politics. Divorced from these realities, and bathed in the local colour of a mental colony, amid `the innocence and immaturity of isolation,' these differences find a free play, a freedom which is play. In that freedom there is no obligation to choose. Querry the non-believer may or may not be a believer. There is no pressing need to grow up: most of the priests, all the blacks, both the Ryckers, are markedly childish. The characters are in a state of weightlessness; the novelist-God can move them without resistance, or much rele- vance to the earth. The question of relevance to heaven and hell is left open.

The most striking passage in A Burnt-Out Case is that in which Querry tells the story of the jeweller who worked so long making intricate gold-and-enamel ostrich eggs: Everyone said he was a master-technician, but he was highly praised too for the seriousness of his subject-matter because on top of each egg there was a gold cross set with chips of precious stones in honour of the King.

The architect's parable about a jeweller will be generally taken as referring to the novelist, and it would indeed be artificial to take it in any other sense. Querry's story, in tone and content,-is not unlike that of Jean-Baptiste Clamance in La Chute: he is a romancier-penitent, or he seems to be one. The puzzle is that, while putting into the mouth of his chief character a devastating criti- cism of the previous works of Mr. Graham Greene, Mr. Greene has written a novel which, except for this passage, very closely resembles these previous works; he has produced, in fact, another egg, complete with gold cross. The `penitent judge' did not go on to try another case, in the same style.

This is not a religious age, except' in the sense in which we say that 'following the French Revo- lution the early nineteenth century witnessed a revival of religion.' They were frightened and we are frightened. Like them we seek distraction, and often dignify this search into a quest for faith. The success of such novels as The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair—and what will certainly be the success of A Burnt-Out Case— seems to be related to this need for dignity in distraction. Some people can find that satisfac- torily in Barchester—another 'region of the mind' —but many now need the flattering illusion of `facing reality.' Mr. Greene's Africa seems rigor- ously unpleasant, but we know in our hearts it is harmless, because it has no economics and no politics. It has only a theology, of which—unlike economics and politics—we can all make exactly what we like.