As usual with Graham Greene, the symbolism is complex. Even the title, ‘A Burnt-Out Case’, is laden with a two-fold significance. The novel is set in a leper colony where the term is used to describe a person cured of the disease but left badly crippled as a result. It soon becomes clear that the novel’s ‘hero’ also falls into this category, though the disease he suffered from was not leprosy.
I put the word ‘hero’ in inverts because Querry, a man with an unhappy past, can only be described as a hero since he is the person around whom the events of the novel unfold. He has arrived at this leper colony in West Africa and has chosen to stay there because the boat doesn’t go any further and he doesn’t feel like continuing on foot. It’s a Catholic church missionary outpost, and so cue lots of arguments and philosophisings centred around the ‘hero’s’ spiritual angst. I don’t find these theological excursions as interesting as I did when I first read this novel many years ago. I like to think that that is because I’ve ‘moved on‘, but it may be just that my mind is not as sharp as it was back then. Or maybe it’s just because I do not find it a cause for wonderment any more that a man who gains fame and success should become weary of the personal emptiness that often accompanies them. At the missionary outpost Querry becomes aware of how little the priest-administrators are concerned with spiritual debate and, as practical men, are more interested in alleviating the lot of the unfortunates in the ‘leprosaria’. In fact, the Superior of the mission is somewhat impatient of ‘philosophising‘: “When a man has nothing else to be proud of,” the Superior said, “he is proud of his spiritual problems…”. Nevertheless, there are important questions raised by the novelist as regards ‘personal fulfilment’ and what it takes to be at ease with oneself and to be at ease with others.
Don’t be put off by the ‘philosophy’. It’s still a great read, after all those years (first published 1961). And what a hand for metaphor! … “In the deep bush trees grew unnoticeably old through centuries and here and there one presently died, lying half-collapsed for while in the ropy arms of the lianas until sooner or later they gently lowered the corpse into the only space large enough to receive it, and that was the road, narrow like a coffin or a grave. There were no hearses to drag the corpse away; if it was to be removed at all it could only be by fire”.
The short-story collection, ‘The Last Word’, varies between stories which are really good and those which are barely interesting. The title story, ‘The Last Word’, is really good, as is ‘The Moment of Truth’. ‘The New House was the one that appealed to me most, maybe because I thought its main character resembled, in miniature as it were, the main character in ‘A Burnt-Out Case’ which I had just finished reading before starting this collection. My edition is the Penguin 1999, but the stories date from 1923 to 1989.