“They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.” (p. 45)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
Elevator Pitch: Major Henry Scobie is the closest thing to an honest cop left in an unnamed town in British West Africa during the Second World War. While his compatriots routinely take bribes and abuse the local populace, Scobie adheres to a strict moral compass, driven by his Catholic upbringing and the intense pity in his heart for the wife he no longer feels anything for but pity. When a young woman comes into Scobie’s life after a traumatic accident, he had to deal with new feelings that grow inside of him, and see whether or not he can reconcile what he wants with what his faith would dictate of him.
This was a pretty solid book. The only real exposure I’d had to Graham Greene before reading it was mostly through movies he was involved in, ie. The Third Man (one of my favorite films noir) and the funny Our Man in Havana. I’d also read The Destructors in high school, I guess, but I don’t really remember too much about it now. So I didn’t really have any preconceptions upon going in to The Heart of the Matter other than he seems to enjoy setting stories in far off locales, which I learned later kind of comes from his having served in MI6 during the Second World War. He was stationed in Sierra Leone for much of it, which was supposedly the inspiration for the area Scobie polices.
While Heart does descend into lots of philosophical meandering and religious guilt in a matter almost reminiscent of Go Tell It on the Mountain and Call It Sleep it also has the decency to attach an interesting story to all the moaning about God and what he thinks of the protagonist, which I appreciated unlike those other two books. To me, the main message behind Heart is that we can never fully understand or empathize completely with another person. Everyone in the book is an island of sadness, nostalgia, emptiness and pain, and everyone wants desperately for someone else to get what led them to become this way. Scobie feels he’s done his wife wrong by making her spend 15 years in a foreign hellhole, and hates the people at the club who disdain her love of reading and literature for whatever reason. Wilson, a new transplant to the colony, falls in love with Scobie’s wife, and attempts to reach her through that love of literature and poetry, but to no avail. Yusef, a Syrian crime kingpin, just wants to be Scobie’s friend, and to have meaningful discussions with him about life, which is something he cannot get from the mostly local boys he uses as informants and assassins.
As a side note, the more I read about the English sort of clubs and the culture contained therein, the more they seem absolutely abhorrent. Granted, most of the books I’ve read with these kinds of organizations have them as representations of colonial/patriarchal power, although perhaps not intentionally in every instance. It is certainly the case here in Heart, and also in A Passage to India; whereas in A Handful of Dust, and to a lesser extent the American equivalent in Appointment in Samarra, the club is more a symbol of wealth, conspicuous consumption and prestige. I wonder if these organizations still exist nowadays, I mean here in Canada we’ve got things like the Elks and the Rotary Club, but those seem to be more “fraternal” than the classical English-style? Maybe I’ll look into it more, my grandfather was apparently a Mason, so maybe I have an in there. I’ve seen the instructional video on how to shake hands.
Greene’s writing style is not exactly florid, which I really appreciate. He’s able to distill complicated concepts like what it must feel like to be an average, run of the mill Catholic person down with incredible ease:
“When he thought about it at all, he regarded himself as a man in the ranks, a member of an awkward squad, who had no opportunity to break the more serious military rules. ‘I misses Mass yesterday for insufficient reason. I neglected my evening prayers.’ This was no more than admitting what every soldier did – that he had avoided a fatigue when the occasion offered.” (p. 103)
He’s also great at the police procedural type stuff. Scobie eventually does something really bad, and has to cover it up, and we the reader are privy to his inner monologue as the policeman’s brain thinks through every avenue of investigation and makes up evidence to cover holes. It’s interesting in that we start to see this happen even before Scobie has made a conscious effort to do so, like the back of his mind is working faster than he even realizes.
Overall, this is an excellent book. It delves into the psyche of a deeply conflicted man, takes place in an exotic and interesting locale, has the paranoid backdrop of World War II spy-catching and smuggling, and has some essential truths to impart about the frailty of the human condition, and our relative inability to ever understand one another.
“When we say to someone, “I can’t live without you,” what we really mean is, “I can’t live feeling you may be in pain, unhappy, in want.” That’s all it is. When they are dead our responsibility ends. There’s nothing more we can do about it. We can rest in peace.” (p. 143)
Who would I recommend this book to?: People who are fans of Graham Greene’s work in film. People who are interested in life in the British African colonies during the war, and have a high tolerance for moaning about the “white man’s burden.” People who are interested in the precepts of Catholicism, and wish to see them pushed to the absolute limit by desire and shame.
Total pages read since January 1st: 14054 pp.
Total books on the Time 100 list read: 49/113, or 44% complete.
Next up on the Resolution Project: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), by C.S. Lewis