Graham Greene’s ‘A Burnt Out Case’…..
In 1960 Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case was published, a book written following his visits to the Congo and the Cameroons and in particular the leper colonies ran by Christian ministers. He dedicates the novel to Docteur Michel Lechat, who ran the leprosarium in the Yonda where Greene stayed following their introduction at a dinner given by Greene’s friend, Baroness Lambert. Lechat gave Greene an invaluable insight into his work and the leprosarium’s of the Belgian Congo whilst reminding Greene of the setting of Heart of Darkness by the influential Joseph Conrad, an author Greene was conscious of imitating.
It should come as no surprise that Querry, Greene’s lead character is an image of the author himself. It is the story of a man running from his past to a place he seeks total escape from the outside world. A leper colony would seem an extreme choice but Querry, like Greene, is a ‘burnt-out case’. Greene’s central characters all bore hallmarks of the author’s state of mind at the time of writing and by 1960 perhaps Greene was ‘burnt out’ both emotionally and artistically? the book would bear that proposition out to a great extent. For Greene was depressed in love and life, an emotional leper if you will and Querry, like the others was Greene’s baggage carrier.
The novel is a lesson in suffering, the mental anguish of Querry and his other characters runs parallel to the physical agonies of the leper victims. Querry, a world-famous architect has lost his love for his work and his lust for women, he is on a journey to rediscover himself but that is wholly dependant on his self-exile which is cut short by the arrival of Parkinson, a Western journalist determined to profit from Querry’s troubled mind. Like Querry, Greene felt compelled to leave England, he suffered serious bouts of depression and self-doubt. The journalist’s craving for a sensational story ruins any hope of Querry finding peace and one cannot help but wonder what metaphor the journalist’s intrusion stood for in Greene’s life.
It was an engaging read, in retrospect I would say Greene’s heart wasn’t in it to the extent of some of his earlier works. The wife of the awful Colon whose lies lead to Querry’s eventual demise lacks conviction, the alleged affair is thinly written despite its huge impact but the ending is worthy of Greene and typical of his later works when a single sentence within a mediocre paragraph can hit you full force. Yes, there are the inevitable faith-based agonies but not to the extent of which he had become accustomed. They seem better judged and more reflected in Querry’s conversations with Father Thomas: “It’s in your own mind, father. You are looking for faith and so I suppose you find it. But I’m not looking. I don’t want any of the things I’ve known and lost. If faith were a tree growing at the end of the avenue, I promise you I’d never go that way.”
In the dedication, Greene insists there is no point in trying to identify any of the characters with him or anyone else. I am not sure anyone believed that then or now.
Categories: The Reading Room