Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Escape Clause: Graham Greene's THE HEART OF THE MATTER

(reflection upon re-reading THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene, in an anthology published by Heineman, 1979.)

"Scobie." Even twenty-seven years after I read THE HEART OF THE MATTER, that name brings to mind a man and his milieu.  He's an officer of the law in a British colony on the west coast of Africa, taciturn, so scrupulously honest that he records only facts in his journal.  He has stripped his office of all personal effects that would speak of a past now lost to him, and little remains except necessaries for the desk and handcuffs on the wall.

More than once, Greene reminds us of those handcuffs, because the colony itself is a kind of prison, at least for the British stationed there. Beyond the borders of the colony, Nazi Germans lurk. The air itself is oppressive, hot and humid, teeming with mosquitoes. The rainy season begins and the drumming of rain on the tin roofs never ends.  Ants, rats, and lizards encroach on their homes.  Besides that, the natives, politely subordinate to the British, form a tangle of interconnected families and lies so thick that Scobie long ago gave up trying to judge who was right or wrong in any of their conflicts.     

That much I remembered.  I'd forgotten how wittily concise Greene is.  Greene breaks us into the world of the novel via Wilson, fresh off the boat, surveying the city from a hotel's balcony, pink gin in hand.  Like Scobie, Greene doesn't have to pass judgement; we know all when we read of Wilson's pink knees, thin mustache, and concealed books of poetry, one verse concerning betrayal of friendship. Wilson's guide points out Scobie, and Wilson takes an interest in rumors that Scobie may be sleeping with black women and may be taking bribes.  What we figure out, long before Scobie does, is that Wilson is secretly investigating corruption in the colony.

Though I'd forgotten the specifics of the plot -- Wilson falls in love with Scobie's wife while Scobie falls in love with a young refugee from a sunken ship -- I remembered how Scobie's world closes in on him.    Whatever Scobie does with good intentions, always above board, also gives the appearance of corruption, and draws him deeper into relationships with characters whose interests conflict. 

Is there any escape?  Greene contrives it so that Scobie has no viable choices, except to hurt either his wife or his lover.  He chooses instead to hurt his God, sacrificing his integrity for pity. Early in the novel, discussing a suicide with his ultra-montaine wife, he says "sharply" that even suicide can be forgiven: "We'd forgive most things if we knew the facts" (p.68).

Still, the novel doesn't endorse Scobie's choice.  An ironic coda makes Scobie's heroic sacrifices seem foolish. The world is more tangled and deceitful than even Scobie thought. 

The real escape from this net of interconnected needs and tangled deceptions is one offered by a bland priest, to take care of one's relationship to God first, and let God handle the rest.

No comments: