Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (#3 of 26)

Date of Purchase – 11th October 2014
Date of Completion – 7th February 2016

Here I should mention the date of starting reading the book as well – somewhere in late 2014.

My introduction to Graham Greene to the best of my memory was in the late winter of 2013 at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Heady days those, attending the entire days proceedings without anything to worry about as a someone who’d just moved to the city. There was a panel discussion involving Pico Iyer and some other fine authors (I believe the ubiquitous William Dalrymple was around as well) where Graham Greene was mentioned as one of the inspirations on the travel writing genre. I enjoyed doing some more reading in this genre after that (If its Monday, it must be Madurai by XX) is by far the stand out. As one of the doyens in this space (Goodreads, Amazon and Wikipedia did confirm), I’d ordered what was supposed to be one of his best, The Heart of the Matter.

I started reading this book immediately on receiving it, however a lack of un-put-downability, enthusiasm and other important events in the winter of 2014 caused me to give up. I recall reading while travelling (where and which sector I honestly have no idea), taking it home (because it is a pretty smart looking book to be carrying around).

Truth be told however – classic or not, it is not an easy book to read in this time and age at least. Greene tells the story of Scobie, an honest police captain in a coastal African colony who is scrupulously honest and the kind of nice guy who gets walked over all the time. It tells us of his loveless marriage with Louise, how he gives up his integrity to help her while lying to himself, falls in love with the mysteriously boring Helen and how he suffers through all these events coming together.

The most wonderful part of the book is probably also the most difficult part of the book. The author’s insights into the human psyche are fabulously on the mark – anyone with a conscience will be able to relate to the moral dilemmas Scobie goes through, the pain of not wanting to let anyone down, the silent agony of being trapped in situations where there seems to be no way out but taking the way out is not the option. These passages are at the same time the most laborious parts to wade through, there is only so much of talking to oneself that can appeal. The meandering of even the most basic thoughts into the realms of psychedelia (induced by religion at times or by God-knows-what) eventually caused me to gleam over those passages and get to the story.

The story in itself is not extremely convoluted, the limited cast of characters and situations helps maintain the structure. At the same time there are enough complexities in the tale, which reading in two halves spread over an year and a half probably killed – I never did get the deal with Yusef, Tallit and the Persians, I did not get the need for the sudden denouement of the Ali story line although the case was clear, Wilson’s falling for Louise and the existence of some of the minor characters without directly contributing to the story as far as I could understand.

Above all this is a book built around misery, greyness, suffering and self-flagellation. The protagonist is a huge pessimist, as are all the key characters around him in addition to also being whiners. Everyone seems unwell. The weather is terrible, the environment difficult, life in the colony is full of rats, cockroaches & lizards, rain on tin huts, mud & mosquitoes, feverishness and sleeplessness, afternoon ennui and everything as unromantic about the colonial life as could possibly be. Not that there isn’t a skill to writing with this tint to your glasses, but maybe reading this in todays time seems difficult to relate to or empathize with. Scobies’ spirals into existential queries on his Catholicism are something everyone may relate with as a broad theme, however to get into details of it is agonizing.

Why I suddenly picked up a half completed book from a year and more ago is something I’m still wondering about. The all pervading sense of closure one seeks to provide perhaps? It took a lot of effort to complete The Heart of the Matter. Will definitely take a lot of convincing to pick up another Graham Greene.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★

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