A short review might read - Scobie was a very Roman Catholic. Those who had read the book would know what was meant. A snatch of Beatles here - ‘having read the book, I’d like to turn you on’, or not, maybe because I can’t make up my mind about it. Years ago I read it for the first time so the collapse of Scobie was a Greek fate or the unfolding of a moral mechanism. He was headed there, here’s the map and the road to Hell is clearly signposted. Does Greene have the moral nous and the depth of abandonment to his intuitions to surprise himself? Perhaps, as detractors have held, he is moving about big pieces on the board, the counters of novelettish Catholicism. Is The Heart of the Matter water I can walk on?
Something in me doubts and I sink.
First of all as they would say in the time of the novel ‘let me put you in the picture’. It is 1940, the location an unnamed colonial capital in West Africa actually Freetown, Sierra Leone. Greene was there in 42/3 as an M.I.5 agent with a cover role in the police. His prefatory note says that any resemblance to people he might have known during his tour is purely coincidental. Fiction, you know. Yes, quite. Scobie is an assistant police commissioner, a man of absolute probity, resisting all attempts to corrupt him by the wily Syrian trader Yusef. In Greeneland mentioning this acts like a shot of gophers in a cowboy picture as the stagecoach attempts to evade the injuns. Scobie has a wife Louise, a bit of a pill, who’s going mad in the vile climate. Long term residents are all slightly yellow like the Simpsons from the anti-malarial medicine atabrine. Conjugal felicity appears to be absent, too frightfully sweat-making. Their only child, a girl, died 3 years before and it seems grieving is in a suspended incomplete state. A photo of her in a first communion outfit with veil is on the dressing table amidst the pots. This is the crystallizing image, the ‘eidos’ of the book. Near its centre as an example of ironic authorial congruence the title is mentioned:
What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery.He had cut down his own needs to a minimum, photographs were put away in drawers, the dead were put out of mind: a razor-strop, a pair of rusty handcuffs for decoration. But one still has one's eyes, he thought, one's ears. Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil—or else an absolute ignorance.
Outside the rest-house he stopped again. The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn't known,just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?
Scobie is in his role as assistant commissioner of police assisting the transfer of people who were in a ship sunk by a German submarine and put on boats to drift for 40 days. One of them is a child whose mother is dead and she is herself soon to die. While the nurse is absent he is sent to sit with her:
When he looked at the child, he saw a white communion veil over her head: it was a trick of the light on the mosquito net and a trick of his own mind. He put his head in his hands and wouldn't look. He had been in Africa when his own child died. He had always thanked God that he had missed that. It seemed after all that one never really missed a thing. To be a human being one had to drink the cup. If one were lucky on one day, or cowardly on another, it was presented on a third occasion. He prayed silently into his hands, "O God, don't let anything happen before Mrs. Bowles comes back."
There is the argument from evil which is so impressive for those without faith or for the convert Scobie who ‘turned’ as the Irish say on marriage to Louise. What’s missing I think in his faith is the belief in the devil until right at the end when he must finally acknowledge him as his master. Until then ‘poor devils’ is colloquial for colonials and natives both. Screwtape was right, not admitting the existence of the sulphurous gentleman gives him a free hand.
It’s a good novel even if theologically incorrect and with unlikely elements. He had a great ‘filmic’ capacity, there is that graphic storyboard effect of which he was a master. Read it; it will make you think, reflect and perhaps pray.