Sunday 21 August 2011

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

 "I feel discomfort, therefore I am."

In my reluctant haste to read as many novels as possible this year, I severely fell behind on writing reviews. Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case is a fascinating literary work that warrants an extensive review but alas, right now I can only provide some haphazard thoughts before any recollections of this novel slip completely from my mind.

Set in the harsh, isolated African wilderness of a Congo leprosy commune, the story revolves around a famous architect named M. Querry (an odd, if not deliberate emblematic name) suffering from a mid-life crisis who decides to abandon his old privileged life to start anew in a dangerous unfamiliar third world country where he can furtively remain an anonymous foreign stranger, or so he thinks...

The comparison of this novel to Conrad's Heart of Darkness is inevitable: the moral and psychological journey of a white man traveling by steam-boat up the Congo river into a world of  the "unknown" governed by colonialism, but this is where the similarities end. Greene is a master story-teller and is intent on telling an exciting adventure story with an intricate plot and engaging characters. That is not to say that the novel lacks any substantial depth, on the contrary -- spirituality and metaphysical philosophy is a recurring thematic concern for Greene and forms the central crux of the narrative. Querry is one of Greene's most psychologically complex and memorable characters. His very name alone bears an uncanny resemblance to the word "query" and reflects the prodigious skepticism and doubt he feels towards the Catholic faith. Despite claiming to be an agnostic, his altruistic behavior in the leprosy camp seems contradictory: rescuing his black servant Deo Gratis lost in the treacherous underbrush, tending the sick with Doctor Colin or building a church  raises the suspicions of the various Catholic clergymen who become convinced that Querry is an agent of God's work. His refusal to accept this point of view leads to extensive polemical religious discourse that is at times a little overwrought but does not detract from the flow of the story. A common motif in Greene's novels is to place his characters struggling with their faith as they desperately attempt to deal with the consuming guilt and regret from the past. Querry certainly falls into this category and whose past has a way of catching up with him no matter if he decides to isolate himself half-way across the world in a small leprosy camp in the Congo.

In contrast, Conrad's novel is far more politically motivated and overtly metaphorical in approach; exploring the nebulous depths of humanity through narrative innovation. Heart of Darkness may be admirable in aesthetic technique but it is incessantly dense. A Burnt-Out Case does not suffer from any of these hindrances and is enrapturing from start to finish -- a cynical reflection on morality and the endurance of the human spirit. Greene's keen insight into human psychology and the perception to understand our inherent flaws and desires is awe-inspiring; his uncanny ability to tap into the essence of what it means to be human with such pithy sophistication is unprecedented. He proves once again why is a master of story-telling craft and one of the best author's of the 20th century.

Read from April 12 to 14, 2011

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