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Graham Greene: A Burnt-Out Case

Weltschmerz, world-weariness, ennui, noia, call it what you will, is a key theme of twentieth century literature but not generally a key theme of Greene’s work. However, in this book it definitely comes to the fore, mixed in, of course, with Greene’s usual dose of Catholic guilt.

The book is set in the Congo (though, not, as one of the characters points out, in the part where Stanley met Livingstone.) It is specifically in a remote leper hospital, run by a Belgian religious order, aided by an atheist doctor. At the beginning of the book, the boat arrives with supplies and a passenger. It is not clear why he is here. He himself says he only got off here because the boat goes no further. He offers to help in the leper hospital, though he has no medical skills. His name is Querry and it is clear that he is escaping from something, though we are not sure what. He is sent on an errand to the nearest town, Luc, an eight day drive away. On the way back, because the river is too high for the ferry, he is forced to spend the night with Rycker. Rycker is a planter, a former Jesuit, who is starved for intellectual conversation with fellow Catholics. He has recently married a much younger woman, Marie, herself the daughter of Belgian colonists. Querry takes an instant dislike to Rycker, not least because of his religious views (Querry claims to have none but Greene gives us the impression that, deep down, he still believes). More particularly, Rycker knows who Querry is, as he has an article in an old magazine about him. It seems that Querry was very successful architect, who had a succession of love affairs, at least one of which resulted in the suicide of the woman. Querry, of course, did not want his identity known and is upset that Rycker knows and will tell others.

Querry continues at the hospital and his architect/building skills come in useful in the expansion of the hospital. He also saves his servant, called Deo Gratias, a leper who is a burnt-out case, which means one who has lost fingers and toes but is now on the road to recovery. Deo Gratias had gone out at night and fallen in a stream and could not move. Querry finds him and stays with him through the night, till help can be obtained. Querry seems happy in his role, till Montague Parkinson, a British journalist, arrives, determined to write Querry’s story. Querry tries to put him off but Greene shows how clearly the press can and will distort the truth for a good story. Things go from bad to worse when Marie Rycker tires of her husband and falls in love with Querry.

Greene once again tells a good story of a man (or, in this case, men) out of his environment. But why is Querry there? He himself recounts a not very subtle fable to Marie Rycker, which basically explains that he is tired of success, tired of being adulated, tired of a series of women who fall in love with him, and really wants to suffer. While it might not be the form of world-weariness we are accustomed to in other novels, it certainly is a form of it. While he adamantly maintains that he is not religious, Greene and several of the characters maintain that he is religious – the priests say that he has heroic virtue – though it really is left somewhat open for the reader to make his/her own decision. Whether he ends up in a state of grace or merely has come to the end, Querry is clearly a Greene hero who cannot find where he fits in.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Heinemann