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Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter

Greene’s overtly Catholic novels are, in my view, his least interesting. The Power and the Glory (US: The Labyrinthine Ways) is a case in point. Not being Catholic, I can cope with the issues of guilt and morals but when, as in this novel, a character agonises about going to Mass because he has not confessed a mortal sin in confession Greene tends to lose me. In his introduction to The Comedians, Greene says It is often forgotten that, even in the case of a novel laid in England, the story, when it contains more than ten characters, would lack verisimilitude if at least one them were not a Catholic. This is, of course, utter nonsense. By the same token, the novel should contain at least three working class people (a group rarely found in Greene’s utterly middle class novels), at least one Irishman (who generally only appear as priests in Greene’s novels) and, of course, fifty per cent women, who are invariably outnumbered by the men in Greene’s novels. It is not the function of the novel to accurately represent the make-up of the society it is portraying. Indeed, many very interesting novels do not and Greene knows that very well. In short, there are many very, very good English novels that do not contain Catholics and do not need to.

Having said all that, this is still not a bad novel, just perhaps not as good as some of this others. It tells the story of Major Scobie, the deputy commissioner of police in an unnamed British colony in West Africa during World War II. Scobie is about to be passed over for the post of Commissioner, a post his wife, Louise, covets more than he does. Scobie is honest, hard-working and competent but he is not good at the politics and, as a result, is not particularly liked by the people who would recommend him for promotion, despite the fact that he has done the job of deputy very well for fifteen years. Though he is happy where he is, Louise is not. She has no friends, reads a lot (she is known as Literary Louise) and does not like the colony. A few years ago their daughter died. They have no other children. Scobie has long hours as a police officer. Most of his work is petty crime among the native populations but there is a concern that diamond smuggling is taking place, involving the Syrians who own the shops in the colonies. Despite regular searches of the ship which is the only way in and out, nothing has yet been proved.

At the start of the novel, there is a newcomer to the colony – Wilson. Wilson is nominally an accountant but we, and some of the characters, suspect that he is more than that. He very quickly falls in love with Louise but she does not reciprocate, though is happy to chat to him about literature. Scobie’s real troubles start when Louise, so fed up, in part because of his lack of promotion, persuades him to send her to South Africa till he can join her there. He cannot afford to send her and ends up borrowing the money (at four per cent interest) from Yusuf, one of the Syrian traders who is suspected of smuggling diamonds. While he vows to keep the two issues apart, of course, he cannot and Yusuf, who is very smart, waits for his opportunity. The opportunity comes when Louise is in South Africa and Helen Rolt, a victim of a ship being sunk by the Germans, losing her husband in the incident, comes to stay in the colony. Scobie starts an affair with her. When Louise returns early and Yusuf and Wilson also find out about the affair, things start to go wrong for Scobie.

Where this novel does work is where Scobie deals with his personal issues as any Englishman – Catholic or not – might. The issues of guilt and fear of being caught are strong and relevant to anyone. The issue of mass and confession are much less so. However, Scobie’s general work, his relationships with his servant, the other Brits, particularly Wilson, and his wife and mistress are very well done and convincing. But may be you need to be Catholic to fully appreciate this novel.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Heinemann