“You heard what the doctor called me just now – one of the burnt-out cases. They are the lepers who lose everything that can be eaten away before they are cured.”
“You are a whole man as far as one can see,” said Parkinson, looking at the fingers resting on the drawing-board.
“I’ve come to an end. This place, you might say, is the end. Neither the road nor the river go any further.”
– from A Burnt-Out Case
I begin in the middle, with A Burnt-Out Case, a novel that Greene published in 1960. This was the approximate midway point of his career (although he had no way of knowing that) – his first novel, The Man Within, was published in 1929, thirty-one years before, and his last, The Captain and the Enemy, twenty-eight years later in 1988. So there is some symmetry to be found in those numbers. But, to be honest, I decided to begin my survey of Greene’s work with A Burnt-Out Case because my informal calculations suggest that Greene, who was born in 1904, wrote the book when he was 55, the age I am now. I wondered if this chronological connection would give the book a special resonance for me. I also noticed a further quirk of mathematical serendipity: Greene probably wrote the book in 1959, the year I was born, and I was reading it just a few months after what would have been Greene’s 110th birthday, which is twice 55. It was clearly where I was meant to begin.
A Burnt-Out Case is set in the Congo as the period of European colonization was giving way to independence, but it is not a political book. Like so much of Greene’s work, it is a story of moral despair and religious inadequacy, with a European protagonist on the run from the strictures of “civilization.” That protagonist is named Querry (a none-to-subtle modification of “query,” larded with connotations of questioning and doubt), a world-famous architect who seeks his way of escape by traveling as far into the jungle as available transportation will allow. He ends up at a leper colony run by Catholic priests, where he agrees to help the doctor, Colin, build a hospital. Colin is an avowed atheist, and Querry a Catholic in name only (or so he claims), affording the two men the fodder for thoughtful theological discussions on hot equatorial nights.
The atheist and the doubter are surrounded by true believers – the priests, of course, but most nefariously by the manager of a local factory, a pious bore called Rycker. Querry has attained renown as a “Catholic” architect, the builder of famous churches, and Rycker tries to befriend him and bask in the reflected glory of what he views as the architect’s God-blessed reputation. But it is precisely this kind of false celebrity that has driven Querry into these nether regions in the first place, and he has no interest in being associated with such a sanctimonious provincial. Rycker also has a much-younger wife, little more than a girl we are told, and Querry finds their relationship baffling and distasteful. The marriage is loveless and arid (a word that, tellingly, appears often in this novel set in the anything-but-arid jungle). Querry befriends the wife, Marie, and although the scenario does not play out as one might guess, it is nonetheless a typically Greene set-up of foreordained tragedy.
Some critics, particularly at the time of its publication, dismissed A Burnt-Out Case as a minor Greene work, a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism and set-up perhaps, but I would argue that the vantage point of time has offered it some literary redemption. Greene, by all accounts, was reacting to the label of a “Catholic novelist” that had been pinned on him after the publication of The Heart of the Matter, a label that, while apt, he found constricting. Querry is clearly a fictional stand-in for Greene, who wrestles with his ambiguity about faith in so much of his work. As Elizabeth Hardwick once observed, we are never given the full measure of why Querry has “cracked up” and retreated to the jungle (he talks of a mistress who committed suicide), and, arguably, he is not the most richly drawn of Greene’s protagonists because we don’t get too deeply into his head and must rely instead on what he chooses to reveal verbally.
As a middle-aged reader myself, I found the story an accurate depiction of the mid-life impulse to escape the past and start over, to reinvent oneself rather than rest on one’s achievements – or failures. It is a restless book, filled with questions rather than answers. It is, of course, also a bow to Conrad, a writer whose influence is never far away in Greene’s work. There are surface elements shared with Heart of Darkness (in an introductory letter, Greene admits that “The Congo is a region of the mind”), and Greene was aware, no doubt, that by the time this book was written “the dark heart of Africa” was already something of a cliché. And yet we are drawn into this uncomfortable, mysterious world (at least I am) because of what R.W.B. Lewis has called “Greene’s achievement of making visible in that darkness, and exactly by means of it, the unforgettable dramas of extraordinarily living human beings.”
Thematically, A Burnt-Out Case fits squarely into the middle of Greene’s opus, with its familiar concerns: love, the expatriate life, infidelity (read: sin), damnation, and, most of all, faith. I suspect I will be revisiting it as my reading continues.